April 19, 2003

Safeguarding Baghdad's treasuries

This article gives some insight into the difficulty of keeping the most determined looters at bay:

U.S. Marines with machine guns and tanks stood watch Friday over what they estimated was $1 billion in gold — safeguarding bank vaults that withstood direct rocket-propelled grenade hits by robbers determined to fight their way in.

"Fort Knox doesn't have security like this," Staff Sgt. Jack Coughlin of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines said in a bank lobby, as shots rang out outside — U.S. snipers dealing with robbers armed with AK-47s still roaming Baghdad's pillaged banking district.

Days of audacious daylight robberies, thwarted by Marines, have left two blocks of the district a gutted ruin. Scorch marks crowned the windows of several banks, shattered glass crunched thickly underfoot, and scattered documents lay heaped up and down the sidewalks.

Broken glass was inches deep in the Central Bank — a burned-out shell of a building, its interior buried in twisted metal beams from the collapse of the roof and all nine floors under it. The bank, by some accounts, holds some of the most precious items in Iraq: ancient gold artifacts that were taken from the National Museum for safekeeping before the U.S.-led war started, and stashed in the bank's vaults. Some Marines suffered from smoke inhalation when entering the burned building. U.S. forces have deemed it too unsound structurally to investigate at length, said Marine Capt. Tim Walker, a 3rd Battalion company commander standing in Friday as Iraqi bank overseer. So it remained a mystery whether museum artifacts were stashed there and survived.

At least nine huge vaults in the banking district were not destroyed, Walker said. . . One of the nine room-size steel vaults showed the marks of a head-on RPG hit, Walker said. He stood beside a small safe that hadn't fared so well. Its layers of metal were peeled back, its contents gone. Robbers running through the district with acetylene torches and axes made easy work of such safes for days.

Medium-size vaults had fallen too, Walker said — but to robbers who apparently had inside knowledge. "We found a lot with the keys in them, open and looted," he said.

To keep the surviving vaults safe, Marines on Friday stood guard at every street and every sewer cover, and snipers were deployed on roofs. . .

Marines fought some of the most intense battles of the war around the banks. Finally, by Friday, they had beaten back robbers who had come on relentlessly with welding torches, explosives and automatic weapons.

Points to note: the robbers have been heavily armed, quick to shoot, and not easily deterred; there has been extensive insider involvement; and finally, the most secure vaults have successfully defied all break-in attempts. This emerging picture (along with the report noted here that armed intruders had been firing at US forces from the national museum) poses a further challenge to the assumption that the looting of Baghdad's museums and libraries could easily have been prevented, and was thus the direct result of American negligence.

Thanks to CPO Sparkey over at Sgt Stryker for the reference.

Posted by David on April 19, 2003 11:19 AM

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