May 11, 2003

Looters overwhelm guards at Nimrud

Amid the firestorm over the museum looting in Baghdad, the situation in remote archeological sites has not received much attention in the press. This Chicago Tribune article is a welcome exception:

Nobody except a few shepherds heard the gun battle that erupted the other night in this ruined, 3,000-year-old city of Assyrian kings that overlooks the wrinkled plains of Mesopotamia.

To be sure, it wasn't much of a fight. Only 30 or 40 shots were fired. And there were no casualties. None, that is, except humanity's priceless inheritance of ancient art. Holding off frantic security guards with well-placed rifle fire, a gang of armed looters methodically attacked Nimrud in the predawn darkness Saturday, prying off world-famous wall carvings and dragging them on blankets to waiting cars. The guards fired back until their ammunition gave out. And then, mockingly, the thieves shouted that they would be returning soon for more artifacts.

"They called out to us by name," said Muafaq Mohammad Ismael, a beleaguered antiquities guard whose trailer at Nimrud is punctured by bullet holes. "They threatened our families if we continued to resist. So we won't."

A month after Iraq's museums were ransacked in the chaos of Saddam Hussein's downfall, thieves have started targeting the very source of this war-battered land's immensely long history--archeological sites that hold some of the earliest and most gloried remnants of human civilization. . .

At least two ancient sites in northern Iraq, Nineveh and Nimrud, have been hit by pillagers in recent days, local archeologists say. In Nineveh, the hometown of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, looters last week tunneled into a tel, or man-made hillock, in search of gold ornaments or jewels. And last weekend at the stone palaces of Nimrud, where an Assyrian king named Assurnasirpal once held a royal feast for 70,000 guests about three millenniums ago, gun-toting tribesmen from surrounding villages took sledgehammers and crowbars to alabaster sculptures that had been exhibited in museums around the globe. . .

The most vulnerable corner of the country includes the age-worn plains of northeastern Iraq, Jabr said, because a stabilizing U.S. military presence is thinnest there.

In that vanished heartland of the sprawling Assyrian empire, Iraqi researchers have logged more than 1,500 archeological sites. Only two still remain guarded by ragged and long-unpaid antiquities police. Nimrud, known in the Old Testament as Calah, is one of them. . .

Roving bands of looters from the neighboring Al-Jaburi tribe have laid siege to the city at night, boring through walls and shooting locks off warehouse doors. The site's half-dozen guards--poorly equipped and technically unemployed since the fall of Hussein's government--fought them off. For an early-warning system, the guards dug a foxhole atop Nimrud's eroded ziggurat, or stepped pyramid. They stubbornly patrolled the site's cut fence. But finally, on Saturday, they were overwhelmed.

"More than 10 men came at night armed with AK-47s," said Ismael, 28, a skinny, exhausted-looking man who has been providing security at Nimrud for four years. "When we ran out of ammunition, they threatened our families. That was the end." Demoralized, the small police force has threatened to quit.

If we can't provide military protection, someone should at least take up a collection to cover the poor guards' back pay and to buy them a decent supply of ammunition.

Posted by David on May 11, 2003 1:49 PM

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