The looting of Baghdad’s museums has generally been represented as an accident of ignorance or poor planning. Not enough attention has been paid to the fact that for several months before the start of the Iraq war, scholars of the ancient history of Iraq repeatedly spoke to various arms of the US government about this risk. Individual archeologists as well as representatives of the Archaeological Institute of America met with members of the State Department, the Defense Department and the Pentagon. We provided comprehensive lists of archeological sites and museums throughout Iraq, including their map coordinates. We put up a website providing this same information. All of us said the top priority was the immediate placement of security guards at all museums and archeological sites. US government officials claimed that they were gravely concerned about the protection of cultural heritage, yet they chose not to follow our advice.
The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was one of the three or four most important archeological museums in the world, a treasure house of objects included in every standard art history text book, housing the earliest narrative reliefs and the oldest written works in world history. As has now been well documented, by April 12 the entire museum had been looted. The looters used professional glass-cutting tools, cranes and trucks over a period of forty-eight hours, as a US tank stood idly outside. At one point a few soldiers strolled into the museum, watched for a while and then left.
The looting of this unparalleled museum was not an isolated incident or a casualty of the chaos of war. Before this raid, a group of looters emptied museums in Basra and Mosul while coalition troops looked on. Even after the museum lootings had sparked an international outcry, Iraq’s libraries and galleries were allowed to be plundered and burnt.
US troops not only neglected to protect historical sites and cultural property; they abused such sites themselves. US forces bombed Baghdad’s thirteenth-century University building, one of the oldest universities in the world. US troops transformed the ancient site of Ur into a military base, even digging trenches into the ground. US tanks rolled through the ancient streets of Babylon, an act that had no military value but to declare conquest.
The destruction of cultural heritage during war can fall into the category of collateral damage, but looting that takes place under the supervision of an occupying force is another matter. The 1954 Hague Convention establishes that it is the responsibility of the occupying power to protect the cultural patrimony of the occupied land. While the United States never ratified that convention, the Defense Department promised to abide by the Hague Convention in several responses to the scholarly community. A March 18 letter to this effect to the Society for American Archaeology is posted at www.saa.org. In any case, the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which makes clear that the protection of museums, as of hospitals, is the responsibility of the occupying force. The United States clearly violated this convention. While the Oil Ministry was, and remains, well guarded, at the time of an emergency meeting about the looting, on April 17 at UNESCO in Paris, no military guard had yet been posted at the museum. The museum’s director of research, Donny George, who had been asked to attend the UNESCO meeting, declined the invitation, explaining that he had to stay in Baghdad to guard what was left of the collections.