May 7, 2003

More Baghdad questions, but few answers

When reports conflict, whom is one to believe? To date, the statements of Baghdad museum officials and employees have been eagerly reprinted, with few venturing to question their veracity. Yet there is more cause for caution than for trust, given the regime that the museum and its staff served. A particularly pointed attack on Donny George appears here (scroll down to the entry for May 1), and goes well beyond this brief excerpt:

There was much ado about the much-quoted Dr. George, who gave a colorful account of the museum under siege. He (again) pointed an accusing finger at the United States, for failing to prevent the "crime of the century." ("Was it done intentionally? I don't know. But moving a tank 50 of 60 meters would have saved mankind's heritage.")

And he got glowing press in London. The Guardian reported that his "bravery in tackling looters after the first Gulf war has earned him something of a reputation as an Indiana Jones figure." He also made a great impression on officialdom. "A typically wet performance on Tuesday from culture secretary Tessa Jowell," noted the Financial Times. "She found it 'truly humbling' to meet Donny George, veteran research director of Baghdad's National Museum." Clearly, Dr. George has landed on his feet.

But no one who knows how Saddam's Iraq worked should think for a moment that Dr. George was anything less than a faithful servant of his master. In fact, he seems to have been less the Indiana Jones of Iraqi archaeology, and more its Tariq Aziz. He was the urbane handler of the foreign archaeologists, with one overarching purpose: turning them into an anti-embargo lobby among the well-heeled. To judge from the sanctions-busting by many foreign archaeologists, he did a pretty good job. He certainly enjoyed the confidence of Saddam Hussein. Two years ago, Dr. George boasted to a foreign journalist that Saddam not only read his reports, but returned them with careful notes in the margins.

Early on, there were reports that the looting of the museum was the work of Ba'athist officials, and there have been many accounts now of storage areas robbed by persons having keys. Yet it seems that museum officials from Dr. George on down continue to dismiss the possibility of insider involvement, while continuing to proclaim the looting to be the work of fiendishly efficient foreign-controlled criminals. But as noted in this NY Times article, the picture is not holding up in all respects. Some of the best pieces have been returned, while an entire storeroom of copies was looted -- strongly suggesting smash-and-grab opportunism rather than cunning master art thieves. And it is quite odd that all the reports of master thieves at work seem to come from museum employees (as opposed to the very different reports from the museum's neighbors, as reported here [scroll down to "AND this"]); might it just be possible that they have reasons to want to deflect investigators' attention?

In fact, the Guardian reported on Tuesday that museum officials appear to be actively obstructing recovery efforts by the US military:

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who commands the taskforce conducting the search, said . . . "Before the war many items were removed from the museums and put in underground vaults in the Central Bank of Iraq. The vaults appear to be intact but no one has been able to tell us which vaults they are in, provide us with access, keys or combinations". . .

Dr Nawal al-Mutawazy, the museum's director, rejected the implication. "The Americans have asked for all the inventory of Iraq's museums and we did not supply them with it because most of the papers were scattered round the floor," she said. Asked about access to the vaults, she replied: "Who says there are vaults?"

But Dr Jabel Khalil, chairman of the state board of antiquities, confirmed that there were vaults. "We can't answer the question of what has been lost until we investigate what we have, and that will take lots of time, because some of the looting was from halls and some from vaults."

This doesn't seem to be getting the attention it should. Top museum officials are caught telling outright lies, openly contradicting not only what reliable observers have reported, but each other as well. It's high time to start reviewing this whole episode from the beginning, this time looking more critically at sources that hitherto have been regarded as unimpeachable. An example from the Times article referenced above:
Officials at the National Museum, whose scholars and scientists are widely respected, dismissed the idea that the museum was targeted as another symbol of Mr. Hussein's rule. They conceded, however, that particularly in recent years, the government had supported the work of the museum, which reopened in 2000 for the first time since the 1991 gulf war.

Colonel Bogdanos said that some Iraqis returned looted objects to him, rather than to the museum itself, which was identified with Mr. Hussein. "It has been a challenge to us that the Iraq museum is closely identified with both the prior regime and its Baathist Party," he said. "Everyone says this looting was anger at the regime."

Supporting that thesis is the destruction of numerous other cultural institutions where nothing but furniture and computers were stolen. The National Center of Books and Archives, also known as the National Library, was destroyed by fire, although Mr. Limbert said he had heard that 90 percent of its books and documents had been removed for safekeeping. The Awgaf or Religious Endowment Library, however, was burned, and it lost 6,500 Islamic manuscripts. The Central Library of Baghdad University and the Science Academy were also looted and destroyed by fire.

Perhaps the key revelation, however, has been that much of the most important material in Baghdad's museums and libraries had been removed to secure remote storage before the war -- a fact that the oft-quoted officials must have known, but inexplicably failed to mention (another link here). Inexplicably, that is, if one believes them to be impartial custodians of mankind's common heritage, rather than Ba'athist apparatchniks doing their best to cover themselves.

UPDATE: This article is now challenging the widely-circulated report that the Iraqi Oil Ministry was protected when the museum was not. We shall see if the challenge is taken up. . . .

Posted by David on May 7, 2003 9:43 PM

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