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[casi] BBC and Guardian cover up US role in Iraq looting

BBC and Guardian cover up US role in Iraq looting

By Ann Talbot
14 June 2003

Looting of archaeological sites and regional museums is continuing in Iraq
despite the responsibility under international law of the US as the
occupying power to protect cultural sites.

The journal Archaeology is documenting the extent of looting. Journalist
Roger Atwood, who specialises in the antiquities trade and is in Mosul,
reports that 30 bronze panels that once hung on a gate leading into the
Assyrian city of Balawat have been stolen from the museum there along with
numerous cuneiform tablets and 20 valuable books. At Hatra, a first century
B.C. world heritage site to the south of Mosul, looters have hacked out a
carved face from the apex of a stone archway.

Meanwhile in Baghdad some of the artefacts stored offsite for safety have
been recovered and some of the stolen items have been returned to the city
museum. Among those returned is the famous Warka vase, a 5,000-year-old
ceremonial vessel from the city of Ur. According to the British Museum,
which has two members of staff working in the Baghdad Museum, at least 28
items from the exhibition halls remain missing along with numerous less
spectacular objects that have an important research value.

The major pieces that have been recovered are some of the artefacts from the
Assyrian city of Nimrud and some material from the royal burials at Ur,
which were stored in the vaults of the Central Bank at the time of the first
Gulf War. The presence of this material in the bank vaults is not a
revelation. A visiting Unesco delegation was told about it in May, but it
was inaccessible because the vaults were flooded. Moreover, the recovery of
these artefacts does not minimise the damage that has been done and is still
being done by organised looting.

Despite the devastating losses that have been suffered and the continued
looting, however, certain journalists have made it their business to assert
that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated and even to claim that
Iraqi archaeologists are responsible for stealing whatever is missing. This
campaign of denial and disinformation can only compound the damage already
done to Iraq’s cultural heritage. Not only will it distract from the task of
tracking down the artefacts that are flooding onto the antiquities market,
but it is also being used to discredit Iraqi archaeologists and to take
control of the country’s history out of their hands.

The BBC is leading the way in this scurrilous campaign. In a prime-time
documentary screened June 9, art and architectural historian Dan Cruikshank
made a number of unsubstantiated claims. He suggested that the Baghdad
Museum was a legitimate military target, that the looting was “an inside
 job” and that the staff were unsuitable to be left in charge of Iraq’s
cultural heritage because they had been members of the Ba’ath Party.

Cruickshank’s claims were immediately taken up by Guardian correspondent
David Aaronovitch, who declared that the staff of the Baghdad Museum were
“apparatchiks of a fascist regime”. He poured scorn on the world’s
journalists and academics for believing the stories about looting.

In an April 15 column Aaronovitch had already asked, “Is this plundering
really so bad?” “There is a lot of sentimentality attached to archaeology by
outsiders,” he went on. He belittled the importance of cultural history in
giving the Iraqi people a sense of their identity when compared to the
evidence of mass murder in Abu Ghurayb prison. It did not really matter if
archaeological artefacts were looted and ended up in western museums which
were already full of material from all over the world.

Aaronovitch was, therefore, understandably enthused by Cruickshank’s
documentary. In a June 10 article, he accused Dr. Dony George of Baghdad
Museum and archaeologists internationally of deliberately creating a false
picture of “100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses
of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves. And the only problem with it is
that it’s nonsense. It isn’t true. It’s made up. It’s bollocks.”

It is, he claims, an “indictment of world journalism” that anyone believed
this story. Only Dan Cruickshank’s “remarkable programme” has exposed it as
a lie.

Cruickshank’s programme was indeed remarkable. But this was mainly for the
contrast between what it showed and what it claimed. Cruikshank could not
bring to bear a single fact to substantiate his allegations.

Some aspects of the programme might be dismissed as merely bad journalism
and a pathological desire for self-dramatisation. Clad in a combat jacket
and keffiyeh, Cruikshank insisted on being filmed camping out on the
doorstep of the museum with his primus stove because it was too dangerous to
move about the city. This impression of an intrepid reporter braving a
threatening city was belied by the crowds of smiling Iraqis who cheerfully
waved at the camera as he drove through Baghdad ostentatiously wearing a
flak jacket the next day.

To watch Cruikshank you would believe that he was the only Westerner in
Baghdad apart from the US Marines. He breathlessly entered the vaults of the
Central Bank as though he alone had made this discovery. The presence of a
team from the television series National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, who
had paid to have the vault pumped out, was not mentioned. National
Geographic magazine report that the vault had been flooded by bank staff in
an attempt to protect the stored artefacts from looting.

Far from the world being ignorant about the fate of Iraqi archaeology until
Cruikshank arrived, a number of international teams have been present in
Baghdad and elsewhere advising on conservation, reporting on looting and
attempting to itemise what has been lost. Few of them have been accorded the
assistance that Cruikshank seems to have received from the US authorities. A
team of international experts assembled by Unesco met with considerable
obstruction in their mission to Baghdad. British Museum director Neil
MacGregor told the Art Newspaper that negotiations with the US authorities
were “tortuous” and that the size of the delegation had to be reduced.

That Cruikshank seems to have met with every assistance from the US
authorities is hardly surprising since it was their story that he told.

He interviewed marines who told him that the museum had been fortified and a
centre of Iraqi resistance. Had that really been the case it would have been
reasonable to expect US forces to have occupied the museum and not left it
unguarded as they did. The only evidence of fortification Cruikshank offered
was a crude dugout roofed with corrugated iron and earth on the lines of a
World War II Anderson shelter. This, Dr. Dony George told him, the museum
staff had made for themselves to shelter in during the air raids. There was
some evidence that Iraqi soldiers had used rooms in the museum, which in a
city that had been the scene of a running battle for several days was hardly

Cruickshank’s aim was to implicate the staff in the looting of the museum.
He criticised them for not clearing up the looted galleries, ignoring the
fact that international experts had advised them to leave the debris. The
whole scene will have to be treated as an archaeological excavation so that
broken material and scattered pieces can be retrieved scientifically and
forensic evidence gathered for a future war crimes trial.

The fact that the staff were reluctant to talk to him and refused to open
store rooms Cruikshank took as evidence that they were guilty of looting. He
ignored the obvious explanation that they were unwilling to reveal the
whereabouts of hidden artefacts with Baghdad under armed occupation by a
hostile power. They were, he claimed, all members of the Ba’ath party as
though this were damning evidence of guilt. In a one-party state, membership
of the ruling party is almost inevitable for people who want to hold
official posts in museums or universities. It does not implicate them in the
crimes of the regime.

Aaronovitch was quick to take up Cruickshank’s allegations and to amplify
them, going so far as to accuse Dr. Dony George of being a fascist. By
throwing such emotive language about he is attempting to create the
atmosphere of a witch-hunt against Iraqi intellectuals.

There is a serious agenda behind this vicious journalism. Wealthy collectors
in the West are casting avaricious eyes on the museums of archaeologically
rich countries like Iraq. The American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP),
which advised the US government in the run-up to the Iraq war, has led the
way in calling for legislation restricting the export of art objects and
archaeological artefacts to be ignored in the US courts.

The ACCP has evoked a storm of opposition in the US, where even the robber
barons saw the wisdom of putting their money into public museums and
libraries and the selfish acquisitiveness of the ACCP runs counter to a
strong sense of the importance of such public institutions.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has vociferously opposed the
ACCP and is campaigning for legislation that will prevent plundered
artefacts being brought into the country. So strong has opposition been that
the Wall Street Journal—a paper that could be expected to warm to the ACCP’s
free market attitudes—has carried an article calling on them “to put their
money into restitution and reconstruction within that country [Iraq].” It
would, the article points out, be tax deductible.

For the obscenely wealthy and criminal clique that surrounds the Bush
administration, however, the benefits of tax deductible charity are no
longer enough. They may have been warned off in the US, but it is their
attitude to the history of semi-colonial countries that finds an echo in
Cruickshank’s film and Aaronovitch’s article.

A former student radical from the Euro-wing of the Communist Party of Great
Britain, Aaronovitch has cultivated a particular brand of educated
philistinism that mixes a passing acquaintance with culture and ugly
right-wing rhetoric. It is to the credit of Guardian readers that they have
found Aaronovitch’s articles thoroughly repugnant. His defence of looting
elicited a response from the Assistant Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum,
Oxford, who criticised his flippancy in “sniggering over the genitalia of
Greek gods”. His latest article accusing the staff of the Baghdad Museum of
being fascists produced a defence of these internationally respected
scholars from chairman of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, Doctor
Harriet Crawford; Doctor Eleanor Robson of All Souls College, Oxford; and
Doctor Jane Moon of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics.

Doctors Crawford and Robson write, “Our high opinion of the character of Dr.
George and his colleagues has been formed over two decades of working with
them throughout an era of extraordinarily difficult circumstances—from the
Iran-Iraq war to the few months leading up to the most recent conflict.
George deserves the world’s praise, not its condemnation, for saving so many
of Iraq’s treasures, and strong practical support in restoring the museum to

Cruickshank and Aaronovitch’s unfounded and ignorant comments lend
themselves to a deliberate campaign of vilification against Iraqi
intellectuals that aims to dismantle the entire system of laws and
institutions that has been built up in Iraq to protect the country’s
archaeology and to further research into its history. This is looting on a
grand scale. The intention is not merely to acquire this or that artefact,
but with regime change to declare open season on the Middle East’s great

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