Baghdad: eyewitness report from Christian peacekeeper

 During the first days of the investiture of Baghdad, while allied military forces were massively and exclusively protecting the Oil Ministry Building and the Palestine Hotel, where the Occupation Administration was establishing itself, the soldiers and marines were protecting little else. As a result wide spread looting took place at nearly every other critical institution in the city. Of course, the occupation forces were too few to do the kind of policing that would have prevented the looting, but the choices initially made, as to what they were to protect first, does, I think, furnish credibility to the oft heard charge that the invasion had more to do with "It's the oil, stupid," than with liberating the Iraqi people. Liberating the Iraqi people still appears to have been a means to that end. Way down the priority list, it seems, was protecting Iraq's celebrated collections of cultural and historical artifacts going all the way back to the beginnings of agrarian and urban society, despite the fact that it had been known that obsessively acquisitive forces in the cut throat world of antiquity collection and dealing in the United States and elsewhere had designs on the tens of thousands of precious and irreplaceable items in those collections. For instance an ad hoc group of acquisition minded individuals and potential middle men and women in United States had been lobbying US officials to get behind an effort to quietly sabotage Iraq's until now very tough laws and regulations concerning retention of its cultural and historical heritage. As if on cue, on April 12 among the first unprotected buildings looted in Baghdad was the National Archeological Museum; and this happened just one day after UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Director General, Kovchiro Matsuura sent a letter to American officials emphasizing the need to protect it and other collections. He said that governments neighbouring Iraq also have been urgently requested to insure that stolen objects don't pass beyond their borders into the hands of would be acquirers. In addition international police and customs officials, including INTERPOL, have been alerted in order to try to insure that international conventions prohibiting the cross border trafficking in stolen artifacts are once again being challenged, and on a massive scale. Speaking to reporters two days ago in Amman, UNESCO's Colin Kaiser said that, based on his knowledge of the pressuring that had been going on behind the scenes in the U S during the build up to the war, he felt that although the looting was "possibly spontaneous," his "suspicion" was that the "looting was organized." He asserted that the fact that crucial Museum inventories turned up missing along with tens of thousands of artifacts is confirmation of his doubts. He also revealed that earlier this month a letter had been sent to U. S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell officially alerting him to the possibly impending cultural crisis. Kaiser said that he was not aware of an official reaction. In order to start to play catch up, UNESCO, has organized a high level meeting tomorrow (April 17) at its Paris headquarters. World class Iraqi and International antiquities experts will meet behind secure doors to begin a preliminary assessment of the losses, and start determining what kind of urgent steps are needed to protect collections that are still in tact in Iraq. They will also to try to get a handle on steps needed to get back at least some of the massively missing treasures. Robbing what has been called "the cradle of civilization,"-the place where writing, law, sophisticated art, and also where imperial warfare began-of the objects and documents, which constitute its rightful heritage, is serious business to UNESCO. Twenty five years of spearheading efforts to help Iraq safeguard and uncover its ancient heritage is going down the tubes. So now the question is, which business is ultimately going to succeed: UNESCO's and Iraq's or that of the underworld characters trafficking in those thousands and thousands of stolen treasures. Jerry is a volunteer with the Christian Peacemaker Teams - an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations.

Share this story