Looted Iraqi museum hopes to reopen, minus many relics

The museum is open to visitors who get special permits - mostly students, officials and foreign dignitaries

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A decade on from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and whipped up a tsunami of theft in Baghdad, Iraq's National Museum is preparing to display its treasures of Mesopotamian culture - even if thousands are missing.

The looting of the museum under the eyes of U.S. troops has sometimes been compared to the Mongol sack of the Grand Library of Baghdad in 1258. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shrugged it off with the comment “stuff happens”.

But if many Iraqis still see the museum's looting as a symbol of the cavalier recklessness of the invasion, its current state is emblematic of the bloodshed, political discord and bureaucratic dysfunction that have racked Iraq ever since.

Museum workers also hope it could one day encapsulate the promise and achievements of an oil-rich country which for millennia sat at the heart of human civilisation.

“The museum is now displaying some of the stolen antiquities that were recovered and restored. From a historical perspective and in terms of restoration, it's a very good thing, and they're ready to be presented,” Shaimaa Abdel Qader, a tour guide with the museum, told Reuters on a recent visit.

The museum is open to visitors who get special permits - mostly students, officials and foreign dignitaries - but could admit the general public as early as February or March, depending on construction and preparation efforts, she said.

The plundering of the museum, whose collection comprises artifacts from over 5,000 years of Mesopotamian history, was one of the most sensational episodes in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Halls and display cases were stripped of priceless sculptures, amulets, coins and cylinder seals.

Today, only seven of the museum's 23 wings are open. Some sections smell of mildew and are only dimly lit by old fluorescent lights. Much of the signage is limited to printed paper replete with misspellings and mounted in plastic holders.

Beyond its walls, shootings, car bombs and suicide attacks are near-daily occurrences and the government is combating al Qaeda-linked militants in the western desert of Anbar.

Undeterred, employees said the museum was adding an entrance hall, installing electronic screens and refurbishing damaged relics.

“This is our dream, to reopen,” said one worker brushing up a piece of Qajar dynasty-era woodwork. He asked not to be named because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

“The security situation, you know, nothing is totally safe in this world. There are terrorists living in every place in the world, not just the Middle East,” he said.

The museum boasts an impressive array of statues, mosaics and bas reliefs of empires from the Sumerians to the Ottomans.

Some of the world's first cities, irrigation systems, legal codes and forms of writing were developed in what is now Iraq, earning it the name “the cradle of civilisation”.

The evidence of the past glory of empires such as the Babylonian and Assyrian contrasts with the reality of modern Baghdad, with its faded and crumbling concrete buildings and streets choked with traffic and checkpoints.

Some of the most striking pieces date to the Abbasid period when Baghdad was the administrative and cultural heart of an empire that once stretched from Spain to Uzbekistan.

The museum is about as old as modern Iraq. It was founded in 1923 by King Faisal I, scion of a prominent family from what is now Saudi Arabia and chosen by British colonial rulers to fuse three disparate Ottoman provinces into a new country.

That task was never easy. Iraqi politics was a saga of coups and revolutions until Saddam climbed to power in 1979 and ruled with an iron fist until U.S. troops deposed him.

Overall, about 15,000 pieces were stolen from the museum during the invasion. Some 8,000 to 9,000 of those relics have been recovered, including the Sumerian-era Lady of Warka stone mask, Abdel Qader said.

The Assyrian hall features statues of colossal winged bulls with human heads that once flanked the gates of the ancient capital Khorsobad and extensive bas reliefs of kings, demons and eunuch courtiers. Many of these were simply too big to steal.

The plundering of Iraq's antiquities predates the U.S. invasion by decades and has continued since U.S. troops left.

Geraldine Chatelard, a programme specialist at the culture sector in the Iraq office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), said the problem first picked up during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s as the government diverted resources toward the conflict.

Low salaries meant guards were susceptible to bribery while poverty and the state's weak presence in rural areas made looting easier and more attractive - problems which increased under international sanctions in the 1990s.

“It's not the American invasion and the collapse of security in Iraq that created the problem, but it certainly increased it,” Chatelard said.

Lack of expertise and resources have since hindered efforts to crack down on militant-linked smuggling networks which were forged in those days and which have now started to move into neighboring Syria to exploit the conflict there.

Political disputes are also a problem and authorities in charge of antiquities and domestic security have often failed to coordinate their efforts, Chatelard said.

Antiquities still come back to Iraq in a trickle from countries in Europe, Asia and North America - although it is unclear how many will eventually return.

“It is highly unlikely that they will get all of their objects back, but regularly objects are returned through governments,” Chatelard said.

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