The Looting of Iraq Goes On

News Abroad

Mr. Michalowski is George G. Cameron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, University of Michigan, member of the American Coordinating Committee for Iraqi Cultural Heritage.

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It is two months since we learned of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The news reports at the time were clear and consistent, but it now appears that they exaggerated the scope of the damage. Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports. Unfortunately, there are now voices in the media suggesting that the damage was so slight that we should all apologize and forget about the whole thing. Some have even gone as afar as to suggest that the whole affair was fabricated for domestic political or ideological reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us look at the facts. Unbeknownst to us, most of the museum holdings had been placed into storage before the war. They survived. But the devastation is still staggering: thousands of items are missing, including about 30 of the most important Mesopotamian antiquities from the museum. We rejoice at the latest news that the famous Warka vase has been returned, but there are still thousands of items missing. It will take some time to establish the exact figure; a source is the US Customs team working along with the museum staff on the inventory reports that the current estimate is six thousand items. Dr. Nawalla Al-Mutawalli, the director of the Iraq Museum, addressing a conference in Vienna last week provided an estimate of approximately ten thousand. Her words were also reported by the press. This is much less than was initially reported, but it is still a catastrophe. If even a thousand paintings and sculptures were stolen from the National Gallery in Washington, it would be considered a national disaster.

The Iraqi museum building was ransacked, records strewn about, almost all equipment and furniture looted, the doors destroyed. Other museums and libraries in the country were ravaged, as were most of the universities, taking a terrible toll on the cultural heritage of Iraq. And this was not completely unexpected. A number of people had predicted that such events might take place. For example, on January 24, 2003, the Boston Globe cited museum director Dr. Al-Mutawalli as saying: “I’m frightened of the war. But I'm really frightened about the looting and the damage that might occur.”

Scholars were given reassurances that cultural sites in Iraq would be protected. Of course, wars are always unpredictable. In April, when we reacted so strongly to news of damage to the museum, we did not know that there had been fighting on the museum grounds, and a sniper had lodged himself in one of the storage rooms. But even knowing this, it is understandable that so many of us were disturbed to learn that no efforts were made to protect the museum until after the looting was over.

No one is served by understating the extent of the damage or by politicizing the issue. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are now hard at work compiling inventories, making repairs, and planning for the reconstitution of the Antiquities Service. This work is being hindered by media reports that question the integrity of members of the museum staff. These are serious accusations that should not be made lightly; no substantiation of these claims has been provided to date, and it is simply irresponsible to repeat them as if they were facts. Archaeologists who have worked with these people have nothing but the highest regard for the leaders of the museum, and they must be allowed to proceed with their recovery work for the present.

The damage to the museums and libraries of Iraq is done. But there is another cultural tragedy taking place at this very moment: the massive looting of Iraq¹s archaeological sites. This has been reported by Donny George of the Iraq Museum, and corroborated by a National Geographic team of scholars and photographers that recently visited a number of sites. The team didn’t simply witness devastation after the fact: they encountered active looting.

These archaeological sites are the remains of some of the earliest cities in the world. The National Geographic team described certain sites, post-looting, as looking like Swiss cheese. One of the smaller ones is essentially gone. The looters haul out thousands of items, including highly desirable figurines, cylinder seals, and inscribed cuneiform tablets. In the process, they crush countless other objects and destroy the houses, palaces, or temples in which these precious clues to our common past were located.

Some of these sites were already damaged by looting before the war. Now they are being ravaged. U.S. forces have made an effort to stop this, but they have other duties to perform and other priorities, including serious security issues. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the looting be stopped if it is not to do permanent, irreparable damage. At last report, Donny George of the Iraq Museum and Ambassador Ambassador Pietro Cordone, Senior Advisor for Culture of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), have been working together to organize the protection of sites and their work needs urgent support.

The destruction of archaeological sites is in some ways more dismaying than the looting of museum holdings. Museum collections are documented; archaeological sites are not. They are places of discovery, where the past is revealed to us. Ripping artifacts out of their context destroys our ability to interpret them to learn what they can tell us about our own ancient cultural beginnings.

This looting, and the concomitant destruction of ancient towns and cities, is fueled by promise of profits from the antiquities trade. If there were no buyers for these goods, there would be little looting. Congress is currently considering legislation that would ban the sale of Iraqi antiquities that were removed from the country after 1990. Everyone concerned about the looting should express their support for the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2009), introduced by Representatives Phil English (R-PA) and Jim Leach (R-IA). Our British allies have just passed a similar law.

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More Comments:

Kenneth T. Tellis - 4/9/2004

Just because people do not like the truth does not change the facts. Stephen Kriz expresses an opion that nationalistic Americans do not appreciate, but at least he has an opinion. What about those Americans who cannot think for themselves anf fathfully follw the party line? The very idea that dissent is aiding the enemy, smacks of National Socialism, which is in vogue in presenr day America. Remember without dissent democracy would not exist! Bravo Kriz!

Kenneth T. Tellis - 4/9/2004

If we are to judge the looting of the of Bagdad Museum of all Iraq's arts treasures, one is reminded of the what one Hiram Bingham US ambassador to Mexico did in stealing Mexico's historical artifact in the 19th century. And that should be followed by Hiram Bingham going to Peru to steal historical artifact there. Worst of all was the robbing of Native Indian grave sites in the Yukon Territory, Canada by Americans bent on taking home valuable native artifacts. It seems that the US has been in the business of stealing art treasures from other countries, just as Nazi Germany did in Europe. The aims seem to be the same. No one should expect that Iraq's historical treasures will ever be returned by the United States of America.

damien - 12/11/2003


What a patently ridiculous statement. Qualify what you have said. Which historians have deliberately put lives of US troops at risk, show evidence of deliberate malevolence towards US troops and the direct consequences of such action.

NYGuy - 6/30/2003


Prof.Michalowski wrote:

"No one is served by understating the extent of the damage or by politicizing the issue. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are now hard at work compiling inventories, making repairs, and planning for the reconstitution of the Antiquities Service. This work is being hindered by media reports that question the integrity of members of the museum staff. These are serious accusations that should not be made lightly; no substantiation of these claims has been provided to date, and it is simply irresponsible to repeat them as if they were facts. Archaeologists who have worked with these people have nothing but the highest regard for the leaders of the museum, and they must be allowed to proceed with their recovery work for the present."

Josh you would serve you profession much better if you heeded Prof. Michalowski's advice. Any one can write inflammatory articles even if there is nothing new. Iraq has been looted for thousands of years by professional thugs, and quoting a soldier on the street does not contradict what serious scholars are now doing in Iraq to preserve these records.

Let us get a few things clear, and the responsible historians have agreed with this:

1. Human life is more important than antiques.
2. Oil is necessary for running equipment that can make the Iraqi's life better.

By the way who it this authority you have quoted. As we said during the first go around on this subject:

First you get the true facts then you make a conclusion. Some did not heed this basic rule and that is why Prof. Michalowski wrote this article. YOo see there were many like you who just went off the deep end without knowing what they were talking about and put the lifes of U. S. and coalitions in danger.

As I have repeated over and over, that is pretty irresponsible behavoir. Think twice and speak once.

Josh Greenland - 6/29/2003

Looting continues at archaeological sites around Iraq


ppercival - 6/27/2003

You are right about Iraq, but you are wrong about the United States. Picking on your point on chapter and verse, this treaty does not in any way bind the United States or American forces in Iraq for the plain and simple reason the United States has never ratified it. This cultural treaty is one of those garbage treaties that are the law in Upper Slobodia, but not here.
Under Article 6 of the Constitution, treaties are the supreme law of the land: "This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."
We never ratified the League of Nations treaty, and quite famously it did not apply to the United States. We have just gone through a long dispute about the administration's decision not to agree to the treaty involving the International Criminal Court. It certainly does not apply to our troops. As much as you might like to say technicalities aside this cultural treaty applies to the United States, I can not see how it carries any obligations on us because the Senate has never ratified it, and the United States never signed it.
It is just a piece of paper.

Herodotus - 6/27/2003

Mr. Kriz,

It is surprising that you persist in returning here. You are on record in here as saying, among other things, that Bush was worse than Hitler (and that the Bush presidency was worse than the Holocaust). Presumably that implies that Bush is worse that Stalin and Mao too, but I'll let you answer that.

Your criticism of Bush leads many of us to believe that you are a supporter of Hussein because you repeatedly fail to say clearly and unequivocally that you opposed the Hussein regime.

Dissent against this president is not unAmerican (and if you think there was reaction to dissent in this country you ought to see what they do in other countries). Failing to read and understand things...to see that (1) the Bush administration will not have a coup next year and that (2) Bush was not worse than Hitler, for example, means that you are forcing everyone to waste time to counter your spurious claims, time better spent elsewhere on more important things.

Stephen Kriz - 6/27/2003


This is a bizarre posting, even for a conservative. By criticizing the worst president in American history (i.e. George W. Bush), how am I being a supporter of Saddam Hussein? Why do you consider dissent against this president as unAmerican? You and your ilk seem to lack a basic understanding of what it means to be an American. I would assert that it is you, who is unAmerican.

Stephen Kriz

Jonathan Dresner - 6/27/2003

Actually Iraq is a signatory to the 1954 convention, which is in force and binding on the US as a legitimate component of international law, though you're correct that neither the US nor Iraq is a signatory to the 1999 Second Protocol, which does not yet have enough signatories to be in full force.

There must be some real guilt people are trying to assuage by picking at chapter and verse of these treaties. The fundamental point, whether or not technicalities are or are not triggered, is that conquering forces have an obligation to protect and preserve both the people and cultural heritage of the countries that they conquer. And it's pretty clear, regardless of the treaty's specific language, that that obligation is not being met in any meaningful way.

Can we please talk about something important?

Charley - 6/26/2003

Stephen Kriz,

Are you posting from Iraq? It is not often that the Saddam Supporters had internet access in the past. Would you consider that any benefit. BTW, have you found any of those long missing relatives?

Best wishes

cassandra - 6/26/2003

Excellent point. In 2001, Donny George told the London Telegraph that looting was going on at the sites: "In Umma, in the south, I have seen holes as large as this room. We believe this is being directed from abroad."
Asked who he was fingering, George told the Telegraph he blamed Israel and the "Zionists" for the looting.

NYGuy - 6/26/2003


I hope my comments to Michalowski are not misinterpreted. I was outraged that irresponsible historians were willing to put the lives of the coalition troops in danger to make a bankrupt political statement. It was my posting under, "Crocodile tears and bankrupt politics" that chastised them for their partisan behavoir.

I believe it was Dr. Posner who defended Prof. Michalowski's posting and when I re-read his remarks I concluded that he was not part of the viscous group of anit-war posts demeonizing the troops, the President, Rumsfeld, DOD, etc, including the insuation that the troops were protecting the oil ministry over the Museum.

Subsequently many serious scholars and the UN concluded this was the right decision since oil is needed to run generators and provide heat, light, transportation for food and water etc. to an impovished nation.

I believe Prof. Michalowski read the false reports in the papers such as the "NY Times", (I don't know if Blair was the one who wrote them), and was disappointed something more could not be done. He did not engage in the viscous comments similiar to those of the Socialogy professor from Stony Brook which were posted with his article on HNN, and which helped bring the anti-Bush crowd out to have a grand old time venting their spleen against our government.

I was please that Professor Michalowski in his article was trying to correct what was said during this period. I am even more pleased that he did not engage in the blame game. His appeal for the future protection of the antiques is a proper one and should be supported.

I believe my position on this matter is very clear and has been repeated many times:


We should all be proud of the actions of the troops under these dangerous conditions and to the Iraqi historians and people who risked their lives to save so much of Iraq's and the world's history. Now it is time, as Prof. Michalowski says, to prepare to protect them with even more diligence.

And hopefully his article will force those irresponsible historians to retreat into their holes, although he can't stop they from presenting their bankrkupt philosophy in the class room.


Stephen Kriz - 6/26/2003


God is the judge of evil, not flawed men like Bush, you or me. What do you call the actions Ariel Sharon ha taken against innocent Palestinians? America is not about choosing which dictators we want to "take out", in Bush's shorthand. Bush is effective alright: Effective at raping the environment, looting the U.S. Treasury, dismantling the Bill of Rights and casuing us to become the world's pariah. Give me ineffective.

Stephen Kriz

Bob Greene - 6/26/2003

Not a "sensitive, compassionate scholar " who places the value of antiquities over deposing a ruthless, murderous, thug but rather an effective, albeit imperfect leader who did what was necessary. Life is not about the perfect vs. the bad but choosing among less than desirable outcomes. The Iraq war was was one alternative. It has had some bad effects. The alternatives would have been worse. They would have left Saddam in power. That alone trumps the evil that resulted from this war . Evil comes from al wars. but not to fight sometimes brings greater evils. This was one such caes.

Stephen Kriz - 6/25/2003

I'm sure G.W. Bush, sensitive, compassionate scholar that he is, would have never invaded Iraq, had he known about this horrid looting. His erudition is evident in every malapropism that spills out of his saintly mouth. This deep thinker pondered for what must have seemed to be an eternity before he uttered those immortal words, "Fuck it, we're taking Saddam out!" What genius.

I look forward to Mr. Bush's beatification and eventual elevation to sainthood, that he so richly deserves.

Charley - 6/25/2003

Much of the reportedly looted material had already been looted by the Hussein Regeim - before the war. Furthermore, much of the looting took place while the museum was under the "protection" of the Iraqi military. I recall the outrageous interviews that the Bathist supporter Donny George gave blaming the Americans for the damage. How outrageous when he knew that much of the material had been removed before the war. Someone must have spilled the beans before those items could be looted again.

I expect that a full investigation will reveal that George staged the robbery - or at least participated in it - to cover up what he had been selling for years. Many of the precious looted items have turned out to be fakes as they are recovered.

ppercival - 6/25/2003

Neither Iraq, nor the United States, is a signatory to this cultural convention.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/25/2003

If you are pointing to the article saying that the Iraqis' violations of the Hague convention were "worse" than the coalition forces', you're missing the point, and your correspondent hasn't read the convention either. The convention specifically rejects this kind of argument, obliging contracting parties to adhere to its strictures even if the other party violates them.

Bill Maher - 6/25/2003

Gentlemen: To prevent further foolishness, please go to www.cronaca com

cassandra - 6/24/2003

Let's see now. You admit you were wrong in the first place but that was based on misleading initial news reports given the press by Donny George (ignoring the initial Wall Street Journal reports indicating the hype over lost antiquities was just hype).
But let's forget that, and put aside the nasty stories indicating George and other members of the museum were padding his pocket. You insist now you are right that plundering is afoot.
Based on what? Why, yes indeed, the very same Donny George you admit gave us misleading information the first time around. So here we go again.
Could this be the same Donny George appointed to his post and kept there personally by Saddam Hussein? Could this be the same Donny George who was Saddam's architect of the rebuilding of Babylon, a project based on a Hollywood set design for the ancient city that brought such ridicule and outrage from archeologists when he started it in 1989. Is it the same Donny George who on TV blamed the American troops for the plundering of the museum, when it's now quite clear no plundering took place, and he knew that.
Now you want us to forget about the museum. Look what's happening elsewhere, you say. Might I suggest that ordinary Iraqis have no idea what's under the fields they walk on, or where the prime sites lay. Certainly, were I interested in plundering antiquities in Iraq, it would be foolish to go in the field and start digging willy nilly. The best bet would be to rely on information from someone who knows the surveys to know the prime places to dig? Donny George?

NYGuy - 6/23/2003

Professor Michalowski,

I remember well those articles posted on the Bagdhad Museum and the picture of the women's face you showed still haunts me. Unfortuneately the entire issue turned into a terrible political "anti-american" (my opinion)food fight such that your comments took on an unintended meaning.

One of my good memories from that time was that one of your friends came to your defense and spoke highly of you as a sincere scholar who was deeply hurt by what happened. I am sorry to say I can't remember his name, but I do remember he was also a scholar with a rich educational backgroud. It was good to see such loyality.

I actually was reexaming my own iterpretation of your post at that time, and I came to the conclusion that you were not trying to be partisan, but was shocked, and possibly bewildered by the terrible tragedy that was being reported in the newspapers. I believe in one of my posts I expressed these feelings and asked your friend to pass my comments on to you. I also believe I asked if you would write another article on this situation, and now you did.

I was very pleased with your candor and the fact that you did not engage in a blame game but focused on the need to appreciate and protect these valuable treasures which are part of our heritage.

I am happy I have been able to express these feelings and once again want to say thank you for the fine, informative article which you wrote. This is the type report that lifts the standards on HNN and is more in keeping with it original intent.

Cheers and best wishes.