June 25, 2003

Cultural losses in Iraq and the Hague Convention

There's been a lot of rash talk about how coalition forces violated the Hague Convention's provisions regarding protection of cultural assets. Jim Davila has posted a long, point by point discussion of what the relevant protocols actually call for (post of Jun 22). In fact, if anyone was in violation of the Hague Convention, it was the Iraqis, as this new report in ArtNews relates:

During a week in May in Baghdad, I interviewed about 30 people concerning the looting: Iraqi museum officials, the U.S. troops accused of failing to protect the museum, members of the U.S. team investigating the thefts, foreign archeologists who led international protests against the U.S. role, and more than a dozen people who lived in the neighborhood and who witnessed the looting and the combat that preceded it.

The most striking fact to emerge from dicussions with those living or working around the museum is that, in the days before and during the looting, they saw the museum being turned into a major military defensive position by Iraqi forces.

In plain violation of the Hague Convention of 1954, Iraqi fighters occupied the museum complex and used it as a combat position for at least three days after museum staff had fled. Neighborhood residents corroborated the charges made by American forces that the Americans had come under attack from inside the museum grounds and that fighting in the area was heavy. Even as they criticized the Americans for not protecting their national treasures, Iraqi witnesses to the looting said that Saddam Hussein’s forces had turned the museum into a small arsenal.

"The Ba’athists were in there, shooting at the Americans. Many people saw it," said Jabar al-Azawi, referring to members of Saddam Hussein’s party. An elderly man wearing a gray robe, he offered me a cold drink in his garden on a quiet street around the corner from the museum. He said that the fighting was so intense that everyone on the block except him fled. "I loved the museum, and I blame the Americans and the British forces because they didn’t stop the looting," he said.

U.S. forces have cited armed resistance from inside the complex as the main reason they could not seal off the museum and prevent the looting. In the end, they protected it only after they had defeated the last remnants of Saddam’s forces in the area.

The report corroborates all of Dan Cruikshank's charges, with much else besides. The overall picture is devastating. [CORRECTION: I shouldn't have written "all", since Cruikshank has certainly made his share of errors; his most serious charges, however, regarding the militarization of the museum, are indeed here confirmed -- D.]
Ibrahim Taha and his colleague were guarding the office of the bus company where they worked when they saw people rushing into the museum, a few doors down. Taha followed them in and came to a small concrete building at the back of the museum, where he saw something that surprised him: weapons. Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were propped against the wall, more guns were hanging from hooks, and there were boxes of ammunition on the floor. The Iraqi fighters who had brought this arsenal had fled, and looters were busily helping themselves to the weapons. . .

About a week before American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Iraqi forces dug three trenches in the museum’s front lawn and covered them with corrugated metal and earth. Partly camouflaged by the overgrown lawn, these trenches—underground bunkers, the Americans called them—were later used to store weapons and launch attacks on U.S. tanks on the avenue in front of the museum.

Identical to combat pits dug in parks, vacant lots, and soccer fields all over Baghdad, the trenches in front of the museum are about five feet deep and seven feet long—large enough to accommodate three or four people lying down with weapons. American forces found an unexploded grenade in one of the trenches. There were at least five sandbag emplacements on the museum grounds and on the sidewalk in front. I asked museum director Nawala al-Mutawili what the trenches were for. "They were dug long ago," she said, declining to elaborate.

Elsewhere in the museum complex, snipers fired at American forces from at least three locations: a storage room in the main building and the roofs of two other museum buildings. Weapons or ammunition were found later at all three spots.

A fourth building in the rear of the museum was used as an arsenal and reloading station, with easy access to an avenue that saw some of the heaviest fighting in Baghdad. The door that connected that building to the avenue was, in fact, the door through which most of the looters entered the museum.

The use of the museum as a military position by Iraqi forces literally opened the door to its looting. "It was that side door," said Khalil Ibrahim, who lives nearby. "All the fighting was over there, and that’s where the thieves were carrying out things from the museum."

Read the whole article -- there's much, much more.

Posted by David on June 25, 2003 12:18 PM


Short of engaging a skywriter, how will this information get to the general public?


It won't.

The popular version promulgated by the media that of the army standing by while hundreds of thousands of priceless treasures found their way into the lairs of evil corporations, mostly like evil oil corporations will prevail and become an urban legend.

What can be done about it?


Absolutely nothing.

Posted by: erp on June 25, 2003 3:49 PM

I'm in the general public, and now I know about it...

ergo, you are incorrect. Score one for the blogosphere.

Posted by: Chuckboy on June 25, 2003 4:01 PM

Score 2

Posted by: dorf on June 25, 2003 5:19 PM

I've sent it to 9 folks -- most of whom will send it on elsewhere -- so, we're up to:

Score > 12

Posted by: Ken White on June 25, 2003 6:44 PM

score three. Little by little the mis-information that the regular media is reporting as fact is being corrected by the blogosphere. I know there was always the saying believe half of waht you read and nothing of what you hear. But the blogosphere is allowing informed dialogue to change the equation, with long term ramifications for the old media. Its about time.

Posted by: brad on June 25, 2003 6:47 PM

oops, score >13

Posted by: brad on June 25, 2003 6:48 PM

score> 14 and rising.

Posted by: candace on June 25, 2003 9:14 PM


score> 10,000 and rising

Posted by: Tokyo Taro on June 26, 2003 3:28 AM

Actually, we're up to a bit over 3,000 views (plus readers coming directly from the main page), so a skywriter may still be a good idea. Along with continuing to pass the word along. . . .

Posted by: David on June 26, 2003 10:35 AM

Thanks so much for posting about this.

Posted by: Watcher on June 26, 2003 3:16 PM
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