Iraq confident it can protect artifacts returned by U.S.
Despite concerns, some Iraqi officials insist the artifacts will be safe in Baghdad
A U.S. decision to return more than 60 smuggled precious artifacts back to Iraq has been welcomed by Iraqi officials, who shrugged off concerns over the items’ safety in the midst of apparent systematic destruction of relics of Iraq’s cultural heritage by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The artifacts were handed over to the Iraqis at an event in Washington, DC, on Monday and will be moved to the Baghdad Museum. The cultural treasures ranged from the Assyrian antiquities to hardware lifted from Saddam Hussein’s private palace and airport.
The Iraqis accepted their artifacts with confidence that they can care for them, and maintain their cultural heritage in the face of mounting terror threats.
Despite concerns, some Iraqi officials insist the artifacts will be safe in Baghdad. In a statement to Al Arabiya News, an official from the Iraqi embassy in Washington, DC, said that since the artifacts will be hosted by the museum in Baghdad, they will be safe from ISIS attacks, given its current re-opening, restructuring and Baghdad’s general safety from ISIS.
The official referred to an earlier statement made by Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily.
Ambassdor Faily earlier said the transfer of the artifacts would “send a strong message to Daesh [ISIS] … that we are committed to defeating the terror, rebuilding our country and preserving its cultural heritage.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym used for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“The return of our looted archeological items is a national project and we call upon all countries to help us in preserving this heritage which is not only valuable for Iraq but for all mankind,” Faily added.
Ahmed Ali, a fellow at the Washington-based Education for Peace in Iraq Center, meanwhile, said: “These antiquities are the sole of Iraq; returning them is crucial to enhance Iraq’s cultural identity in particular after ISIS’ destruction of the sites in Nineveh.”
“It sends a message that Iraq’s heritage is still ongoing and can be maintained. Now, there is certainly a responsibility on the Iraqi government to ensure these artifacts will be preserved and not meet the same fate of Nineveh’s sites. It is one way to defeat ISIS,” he added.
Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Minister Adel Shirshab earlier this month expressed concern about the level of plundering by ISIS, saying that only the U.S.-led coalition could halt their actions.
“Our airspace is not in our hands. It’s in their hands,” Shirshab said. “I am calling on the international community and coalition to activate its air strikes and target terrorism wherever it exists,” he said.
The request for American and coalition intervention to end the destruction of Iraq’s historic landmarks and relics was received with hesitation by the United States’ top military officer. In a one-day visit to Baghdad earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told reporters that the coalition would “consider” intervention to protect the historic sites, but noted that any action would have to “fit into the priority of all the other things we’re being asked to do on behalf of Iraq.”
ISIS has steadily been destroying historical relics that are central to Iraqi history under the guise of preventing idolatry claiming they were “idols.” Reports suggest the militant group is also selling the artifacts to finance its operations in Iraq and Syria.
UNESCO estimated that artifacts smuggled out of war zones account for $2.2 billion of the global illicit market annually.
In returning the antiquities at a time of great cultural tumult for Iraq, Washington and Baghdad may be trying to change the narrative over the erosion of Iraq’s security and cultural heritage preservation following the 2003 invasion.
“Aside from legal obligations, the U.S. government wants to do the right thing,” said Patricia Wattenmaker, a professor of Archeology, specializing in Mesopotamia, at the University of Virginia.”
“There is regret that the U.S. government did not protect the National Museum when U.S. forces entered Baghdad. The government has subsequently made an effort to help Iraq recover artifacts that were looted during the war,” she added.