Midway through the 2003 invasion, an American officer was shown on TV directing tank crews away from the site of Babylon, explaining to them that it was an important part of Iraq’s heritage. This led me to assume that the army had acted on information that I, among others, had given them about the significance of the ancient region of Mesopotamia. I imagined that when the army reached the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, there would be another photo op, and we would be told that the complex had been secured. By 8 April, the US army was reported to have reached the Ministry of Information, two streets away from the museum. I emailed Pentagon staff, reminding them of the importance of the museum. In reply, they asked me where it was. Since I’d been assured months before that the Pentagon knew where it was, I began to worry. So I emailed non-embedded reporters in Baghdad, asking them to check what was going on.
Looters running away from TV cameras in the public galleries were the first indication that something was badly wrong. What happened in the museum can now be seen as part of the destruction of virtually all governmental, cultural, educational and humanitarian institutions by looters, who carried on for months while the occupying forces stood by. Some Iraqis think that it was American policy to let the looting go ahead, so as to obliterate the institutional and cultural memory of the country, before it was remade in a neocon image. They find it hard to believe that the most powerful country in the world could carry out an operation that was badly planned, ineptly executed and marked by an arrogant ignorance of the land and people it was taking over.
For 24 hours after the US army took control there was relative quiet, since the Baghdadis assumed they were under curfew. When they found they weren’t, wide-scale looting began. The looting of the Iraq Museum was a three-day affair, in which more than 15,000 items were stolen from public galleries and storerooms. Most of the offices, labs and workrooms were stripped of furniture and equipment and ransacked. The museum was in a strategic area, with several ministries, the railway station, a bus station, and major street intersections. Troops in tanks not more than 50 metres from the museum entrance were asked by an employee to protect the institution, but said they didn’t have orders to do so.
The looters finally left on 12 April, when the media showed up. A few employees who lived nearby took advantage of this, barring the doors and putting up a large sign in Arabic saying that the building was under the protection of the Americans. The mob lingered, but there was no further looting. Of the 15,000 objects stolen only 6000 have been returned or held by customs agents abroad. These losses are on a scale well beyond previous thefts from museums. The offices and archives of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which administers all antiquities sites and museums in Iraq, were looted too, and thousands of records, photographs, maps and microfilms destroyed or damaged.
After senior antiquities officials arrived at the museum on 13 April, it was announced that the losses were major. Some very famous artefacts had been left on display, being judged too fragile or too heavy to move: the looters thought otherwise. In one ground-floor storeroom it was obvious even without electricity that many shelves had been emptied and numerous items smashed on the floor. Looters had also broken through the specially strengthened doorways that led to the underground storerooms where the most important artefacts had been kept. The lack of light prevented officials from making a proper inspection. Since the museum was still under threat from circling mobs and a number of key staff were still unable to report to work, it was impossible to begin a systematic assessment of the losses.
The mob had been more interested in furniture, light fixtures and wiring (the copper could be sold) than in antiquities, with the exception of the group of professional thieves that made their way to the underground storerooms, lighting their path with burning wads of Styrofoam. They headed for a specific corner, where an important collection of Islamic coins and the museum’s most precious cylinder seals were stored. They took more than 5000 cylinder seals and 5000 pieces of jewellery, but dropped the keys to the safes, so that the most valuable items survived the raid.
I reached the museum on 10 May, as part of a National Geographic group of Mesopotamian archaeologists. I was also a member of a Unesco fact-finding team, the rest of whom arrived in Baghdad several days later, having had difficulty getting permission to enter the country at all. In the meantime, the Geographic group had spent a couple of days in the Iraq Museum and then split into two units, one going north to Nineveh, Nimrud, Assur and Hatra, the other south to Babylon, Kish, Nippur, Uruk, Ur, Lagash. The Unesco team, however, was allowed only a limited stay in the country, was not permitted to go outside Baghdad, and its members had to live in tents in the UN compound.