Man Without Qualities

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Exaggerated Iraq Museum Looting

The Wall Street Journal reports that tales of Iraqi museum looting are much exaggerated - and so are allegations that American forces "let" the looting happen or that more American troops would likely have prevented the looting:

[T]hanks to Iraqi preparations before the war, it seems the worst has been avoided. Donny George, the director-general of restoration at the Iraqi Antiquities Department, Wednesday said his staff had preserved the museum's most important treasures, including the kings' graves of Ur and the Assyrian bulls. These objects were hidden in vaults that haven't been violated by looters. ... Earlier this week, some museum workers reached foreign journalists to complain about an orgy of looting in the museum, saying that little of the collection remains. As secrecy long enveloped the museum -- where part of the collection had been siphoned off by Saddam Hussein's family and sold abroad -- it isn't clear whether these museum workers knew about the prewar preparations to hide the most-valuable artifacts.

Mr. George... said many valuable items are still missing. Among the antiquities unaccounted for so far, Mr. George said, are the sacral vase of Warqa, from Sumerian times, and the bronze statue of Basitqi, from the Accadian civilization. ... "There was a tremendous amount of looting just for destruction purposes -- and there were artifacts that were not destroyed at all," he said. "It was not as bad as I thought it would be."

Lt. Col. Schwartz ... said he couldn't move into the museum compound and protect it from looters last week because his soldiers were taking fire from the building -- and were determined not to respond. ...

And, in particular, American forces did not "let" the looting occur, and it appears not to have been a problem that "more troops" would have likely solved. If there had been more American troops, that would just have meant more American troops would have been outside getting shot at by the snipers in and on the museum - and waiting while the looting went on.

Further, it is a real leap to conclude that any particular item missing from a museum whose collection had been siphoned off by Saddam Hussein's family and sold abroad disappeared in the looting. Would a high official leaving for Damascus leave behind a valuable museum piece if he could still get at it after the Husseins fed? One might also want to keep in mind reports that looters who ravaged Iraqi antiquities appeared highly organized and even had keys to museum vaults and were able to take pieces from safes. Is that the kind of thing one expects from "looters" fresh off the street?

The Journal article raises yet another interesting question: Should items from this museum collection which were siphoned off by Saddam Hussein's family and sold abroad still be considered to be the property of Iraq? What if the new courts of Iraq established by the future government declare such sales to have been invalid?

UPDATE: Maybe Mr. Sullivan didn't read his Journal closely enough this morning.


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