US pays for history's worst "cultural crime"

Robbed of treasures, Iraq's museum remains closed

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As invading U.S. forces guarded Iraq's oil ministry in 2003 the country's national museum, which held treasures from thousands of years of civilization, was shamelessly looted in what later became known as the worst cultural crime in recent history.

In a bid to help restore some of the damage the U.S. government announced a $13 million grant, mainly to help refurbish the museum. The money will be used for archaeology and museum training projects as well as the restoration of the museum.

"This is an investment not only in Iraq's heritage but in the world's heritage," the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said Monday.

Nevertheless, Iraqi authorities are reluctant to re-open the museum considering more than 15,000 artifacts were stolen and only 6,000 have been recovered.

Horrible cultural crime

Iraq's archaeological heritage is among the richest in the world, including treasures from thousands of years of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, much of it housed at the National Museum in Baghdad.

In the main hall a painting shows Assyrian King Sargon II, who ruled an empire from what is now northern Iraq, storming a rampart as soldiers pile decapitated heads before him.

The magnificent stone reliefs -- from the palace of a plundering ruler -- themselves fell prey to looters and vandals some 2,700 years later, after the U.S.-led invasion.

"We cannot risk displaying the treasures we have unless we have guarantees that security is 100 percent stable in Baghdad and the area surrounding the museum," Amira Eidan, director of Iraq's antiquities and museums, said.

What is now Iraq was home to empires that rose and fell over thousands of years in Mesopotamia, a cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

One of the world's greatest collections of Mesopotamian treasures has remained largely locked away since the invasion, when television footage showed ragged Iraqis carting off whatever they could find.

"It was considered one of the most horrible cultural crimes in recent history," Eidan said. "The Americans guarded the oil ministry but not the museum. The then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to it was: 'Stuff happens.'"

Inside the museum only a fraction of the contents are on display, many of them under dusty plastic sheets. Posters on the walls give a glimpse of treasures locked away in vaults.

One showed a king's finely decorated golden helmet, crafted about 4,400 years ago. On another, a tiara of gold flowers.

Also under lock and key is the fabulous gold jewellery of the Nimrud treasures, excavated in northern Iraq. Along with Tutankhamun's tomb, they are considered one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.

It was considered one of the most horrible cultural crimes in recent history.

Amira Eidan, director of Iraqi antiquities and museums

Protection from evil

Among the 6,000 artifacts that were retrieved was the Sumerian "Mona Lisa," or Lady of Warka, a 5,000 year-old stone head of a woman. It was found buried in a Baghdad backyard.

One reason the museum is still closed is to allow renovations. Damaged by years of neglect, its 17 exhibition halls need a lot of work to prepare them for use.

The museum traces human history in the area now covered by modern Iraq from prehistoric times through the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian periods, which yielded rulers and kingdoms mentioned in Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy books.

Rehabilitating the building has been an international effort and several countries have donated or pledged cash and expertise, Eidan said.

A wing featuring Islamic art and another lined with massive wall panels from Assyrian King Sargon II's palace are the only halls nearing completion. But even in the Assyrian hall, the ceiling shows signs of rain damage.

The museum has been closed for years at a time since 1980 due to Iraq's wars with the West and Iran.

"I miss my work as a guide so much ... There were visitors from schools and foreigners," said former museum guide Mariam Remzi as she paced the empty corridors. She recalled breaking down in tears when she saw the aftermath of the looting.

She pointed to where looters had broken one of Sargon II's wall panels, probably in an attempt to pry it off the wall.

Near the painting of the king lies another decapitated head, a colossal stone carving hacked off a statue by looters at Sargon II's palace ruins in 1996.

The human head was once attached to a winged bull, figures commonly placed in pairs at doorways to ward off evil and protect Assyrian kings and their property.

It now lies on the floor, staring up at a leaky ceiling.