Baghdad museum now image of destruction

By null, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - He was a museum guide on the most pathetic of tours.

"Come," said Baha Abdul Kader. "You must come with me."

He led his guest - the only one in weeks - into what remained of the Saddam Center of the Arts. Past the shards of glass glittering in the courtyard, where boys in their underpants splashed in a fountain of putrid water.

Past the statues that once flanked the entrance, now face down with their heads smashed against the concrete.

And past the toilet bowl, ripped from a bathroom and hurled through a window.

Inside, it was worse. Galleries stripped of their paintings, offices trashed and plundered, a storage room ankle-deep in shattered light tubes, still in their GE cartons. And everywhere, thick black soot from the fires that looters set more than a week ago; the smoke on the fifth floor is still so dense it burns the eyes and chokes the lungs.

"This," said Kader with a sad little smile, "is reality TV."

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime came an orgy of looting that ravaged Iraq's historical and cultural heritage. Critics worldwide have denounced the U.S. government for not doing more to protect the Iraqi Museum, with its unrivaled collection of ancient Sumerian art, and the National Library, where thousands of priceless books and manuscripts were stolen or destroyed.

Less publicized but no less devastating was the rampage through the Center of the Arts, a striking complex that showcased the work of contemporary Iraqi painters and sculptors. Of the 6,000 items, as many as 5,000 are gone.

This week, American soldiers helped to salvage what little is left.

"I've seen the artwork, it's magnificent," said Maj. Juan Sandoval, a Chicago policeman in the Army Reserve. "I would gladly pay to go see some of this stuff."

Sandoval's unit, the 308 Civil Affairs Brigade, moved in as employees began rooting through broken glass and charred rubble in search of anything remotely recognizable. The first big find was in the basement - as many as 200 paintings that had been stored for future display.

It was pitch black and wet. At least a foot of water had poured in, first when looters smashed the water pipes and then as firefighters arrived with their hoses. While the Americans held flashlights, the Iraqis sloshed and groped in the inky mess. They pulled out painting after painting, all of them water-logged.

Some of the canvases were huge - one was an apocalyptic scene of Baghdad burning - and it was hard maneuvering them through the narrow doorway and up the darkened stairs. Outside, they were loaded onto an army truck to be taken for safekeeping at the Iraqi Museum, now under 24-hour American guard.

Much of what is missing from that great museum apparently was stolen by professional thieves, who knew exactly what to look for and came prepared with knives and box cutters. Authorities worldwide are on the alert for priceless items suddenly appearing on the international market.

At the Saddam Center for the Arts, "we're finding a bit of everything," Sandoval said. "Probably regular looting plus the organized stuff."

As its name suggests, the center had a close association with the former Iraqi leader. He was born in April - he will be 66 on Monday if he is still alive - and three years ago this month the center held a birthday exhibit of huge portraits of him in various poses and garb.

Hussein considered himself a patron of the arts and rewarded painters he admired, especially those who did flattering likenesses. For many Iraqi artists, depicting Hussein was the only way to get oils and canvases they otherwise could not afford.

When the government fell, the Hussein market suddenly dried up. As looters went through the center, they slashed every portrait.

But much more was destroyed as well.

"Very big sad," Kader said in his broken English.

In gallery after gallery, soot-covered walls were bare but for ghostly outlines where paintings once hung. Some had been ripped from their frames; others carefully removed. The empty wooden frames, hundreds of them, were jumbled like pick-up sticks.

As he went from room to room, floor to floor, Kader stopped every now and then to tenderly pick up something from the rubble. Once, it was a damaged sculpture of a winged lion; another time, a small stone turtle with its head gone.

Kader, a guide for the past six years, carefully propped each against the wall, so employees looking for anything salvageable would be certain to see them.

In offices on the upper floors, looters smashed locked doors and took every chair, table and desk. The library was burned; about all that remained was a charred 1945 English edition of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Although the fire was intense enough to melt electrical wiring, thousands of bits of paper somehow survived. Strewn about blackened floors was evidence that a lively arts scene had flourished in Iraq despite years of war and economic sanctions.

There was a poster of "Baghdad's 3rd International Festival of Plastic Arts April 28, 2002" - Hussein's birthday. There were tickets to the "14th International Babylon Festival" and catalogs for various exhibits. A large signboard, broken in half, proclaimed: "Baghdad, land of peace, welcomes its respected guests."

By early afternoon, the American soldiers had loaded all the paintings from the basement, plus a few dozen found in the galleries. As they drove off, they left one behind.

Saddam Hussein smiled up from the trash pile.

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com