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Iraq

Museum looting may have been planned

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi museum officials and U.S. military authorities now think that the much-publicized looting of antiquities from the world-renowned National Museum of Iraq was most likely a well-executed theft, perhaps planned before Baghdad fell.

On Wednesday, museum officials expressed hope that thousands of years of Iraq's cultural heritage might not have vanished completely. They have determined that most of the looting that did take place at the museum, home to more than 170,000 artifacts of human civilization, was focused on office machines and furniture, as at other government buildings, and that only selected antiquities were taken.

"It's not a total loss," Dr. Donny George, the director of research for the Iraqi Board of Antiquities, said Wednesday afternoon. "But some of the major masterpieces are gone."

"The people who came in here knew what they wanted. These were not random looters," George said.

He held up four glass cutters -- red-handled with inch-long silver blades -- that he found on the floor of the looted museum.

He pointed out that replica items -- museum pieces that would have looked every bit as real to an angry mob as authentic items -- were left untouched. The museum's extensive Egyptian collection, which is valuable, but not unique, also was left alone.

With the museum at last under the protection of U.S. troops and tanks, George said Wednesday that part of the collection had been stored in vaults in the basement just before the war, though some of the heavier and more fragile items remained in the galleries. Some items also were taken elsewhere for storage.

He said looters did manage to break into the basement, but said his team of experts had only begun assessing the extent of the damage.

"We have to check all the boxes to see what is lost," he said, "and that will take time, a lot of time."

George listed three treasures he said were missing: a 3-foot carved Sumerian vase from 3200 B.C.; a headless black statue of the Sumerian king Entemena, dating from 2600 B.C.; and a carved sacred cup of the same age.

The news cheered some experts in the United States. Clemens Reichel, a University of Chicago archaeologist who specializes in Mesopotamia, said the idea that the theft might have been carried out by knowledgeable thieves lessened the likelihood that priceless artifacts would be melted down for the value of their metal.

Still, the damage is grave, George said. "What we have lost and what has been broken is priceless. We will never put a number on it."

"Human civilization was here," he said. "There may have been other museums in the world that have small pieces of this story, but there was no collection so detailed with the evidence of human civilization."

In New York, Dr. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he was gaining wide support for proposals that the museum looters be offered immunity from prosecution and some compensation if they return their loot.

-- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.

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