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Iraq's intellectual heritage sacked

UNESCO and the British Museum say they will help restore ransacked museums.

©Associated Press
April 16, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Looters and arsonists ransacked and gutted Iraq's National Library, leaving a smoldering shell Tuesday of precious books turned to ash and a nation's intellectual legacy gone up in smoke.

They also looted and burned Iraq's principal Islamic library nearby, home to priceless old Korans; last week, thieves swept through the National Museum and stole or smashed treasures that chronicled this region's role as the "cradle of civilization."

"Our national heritage is lost," an angry high school teacher, Haithem Aziz, said as he stood outside the National Library's blackened hulk. "The modern Mongols, the new Mongols did that. The Americans did that. Their agents did that," he said as an explosion boomed in the distance as the war winds down.

The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan's grandson Hulegu, sacked Baghdad in the 13th century. Today, the rumors on the lips of Baghdad residents is that the looting that has torn this city apart is led by U.S.-inspired Kuwaitis or other non-Iraqis bent on stripping the city of everything of value.

But outside the gutted Islamic library on the grounds of the Religious Affairs Ministry, the lone looter scampering away was undeniably Iraqi, a grizzled man named Mohamed Salman.

"It was left there, so why leave it?" he asked a reporter as he clung to a thick, red-covered book, a catalog of the library's religious collection. The scene inside was total devastation. In much of the library, not a recognizable book or manuscript could be seen among the dark ash.

The destruction has drawn condemnation worldwide, with many criticizing U.S.-led coalition forces for failing to prevent or stop the looting, sometimes carried out by whole Iraqi families.

On Tuesday, U.S. officials acknowledged they were surprised by the rampage and said troops were too occupied by combat to intervene when they first reached Baghdad.

"I don't think anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the people of Iraq," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at a U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar.

The United Nation's cultural agency and the British Museum announced Tuesday they will send in teams to help restore ransacked museums and artifacts.

Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, called on customs officials, police, art dealers and neighboring countries to block the trading of stolen antiquities.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan joined UNESCO in calling on Iraq's neighbors, international police, customs authorities and art experts to prevent the trade in stolen Iraqi objects.

Among the National Museum's treasures were the tablets with Hammurabi's Code, one of mankind's earliest codes of law. It could not be immediately determined whether the tablets were at the museum when war broke out.

Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases at the museum and pilfered or destroyed their contents. Missing were the 4-millenniums-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls and colossal statues, ancient manuscripts and bejeweled lyres.

The three-story, tan brick National Library building, dating to 1977, housed all books published in Iraq, including copies of all doctoral theses. It preserved rare old books on Baghdad and the region, historically important books on Arabic linguistics, and antique manuscripts in Arabic that teacher Aziz said were gradually being transformed into printed versions.

"They had manuscripts from the Ottoman and Abbasid periods," Aziz said, referring to dynasties dating back a millennium. "All of them were precious, famous. I feel such grief."

No library officials could be located to detail the loss. Haroun Mohammed, an Iraqi writer based in London, told the Associated Press that some old manuscripts had been transferred from the library to a Manuscript House across the Tigris River.

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