Ancient ruins of Iraq looted

DHAHIR, Iraq – The
looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is thriving again. This time it is not a result
of the “stuff happens” chaos that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003 but rather
the bureaucratic indifference of Iraq’s newly sovereign government.

Thousands of
archaeological sites – containing some of the oldest treasures of civilization
– have been left unprotected, allowing what officials of Iraq’s antiquities
board say is a resumption of brazenly illegal excavations, especially here in
southern Iraq.

A new antiquities
police force, created in 2008 to replace withdrawing U.S. troops, was supposed
to have more than 5,000 officers by now. It has 106, enough to protect their
headquarters in an Ottoman-era mansion on the eastern bank of the Tigris River
in Baghdad and not much else.

“I am sitting behind
my desk and I am protecting the sites,” the force’s commander, Brigadier
General Najim Abdullah al-Khazali, said with exasperation. “With what? Words?”

The failure to staff
and use the force – and the consequent looting – reflects a broader weakness in
Iraq’s institutions of state and law as the U.S. military steadily withdraws,
leaving behind an uncertain legacy.

Many of Iraq’s
ministries remain feeble, hampered by corruption, the uncertain divisions of
power and resources and the political paralysis that has consumed the
government before and after this year’s election.

In the case of Iraq’s
ancient ruins, the cost has been the uncountable loss of artifacts from the
civilizations of Mesopotamia, a history that Iraq’s leaders often evoke as part
of the country’s once and, anticipating archaeological research and tourism,
future greatness.

“The people who make
these decisions, they talk so much about history in their speeches and
conferences,” said the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage,
Qais Hussein Rashid, referring to the plight of the new police force, “but they
do nothing.”

The looting today has
not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the U.S.
invasion in 2003, when looters – tomb raiders, essentially – swarmed over sites
across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian
and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials
and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year,
coinciding with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, who until 2009 conducted joint
operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters
again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep
records of reported lootings.

Here, the looting is
evident in the shattered bits of civilization – pieces of pottery, glass and
carved stone – strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian
trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and
other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and
cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according
to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar province.
The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities,
he said.

“For me, for you, it
is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it
in the market.”

The Dubrum site –
which stretches for kilometers in a sparsely populated region – is pocked by
hundreds of trenches, some deeper than 3.5 meters. At the bottom of some is the
brickwork of tombs, marking the area as a cemetery. Al-Hamdani said tombs are
the most highly valued targets – of archaeologists and looters alike.

Many of the trenches
date to the post-invasion chaos, but others have been freshly dug. Just last
month someone used a bulldozer and plowed a half-meter gash in the desert,
unearthing the brick and bitumen remains of a stairway possibly leading to
another cemetery. The materials dated it to the Babylonian period in the
seventh century B.C.

The precision of the
new looting indicates expertise.

“The thief is in the
house,” al-Hamdani said, suggesting that many of those involved worked on the
sites years ago when legitimate archaeological excavations took place, before
the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

A Bedouin reported
the new excavation to the local police in Dhi Qar, but there was little
officers there could do except to draw public attention to the problem.

Al-Hamdani’s
successor as antiquities inspector for the province, Amir Abdul Razak
al-Zubaidi, complained that he did not even have the budget to pay for gasoline
to drive to the sites of new looting.

“No guards, no
fences, nothing,” al-Hamdani said. “The site is huge. You can do whatever you
want.”

Until the creation of
the antiquities police in 2008, responsibility for protecting archaeological
sites rested with the Federal Protection Police, created, equipped and trained
by the U.S. military. The federal police, however, also guard government
officials and buildings, like schools and museums. The ruins, some just
desolate patches of desert, slipped far down the list of priorities.

Rather than filling
the gap, the creation of the antiquities police deepened it. Iraq’s various
military and police forces simply left the issue to an agency that effectively
still does not operate, nearly two years later.

Rashid, director of
the antiquities board, also said his agency’s request for a $16 million budget
in 2010 had been slashed to $2.5 million. The police officers promised by the
Ministry of the Interior simply have yet to materialize, despite an order last
year from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“Not everything the
prime minister requests from his ministers is obeyed,” he said.

A spokesman for the
Interior Ministry declined to comment on the status of the antiquities police.

Rashid went on to
complain that the looters in some southern provinces – including Dhi Qar and
Wasit – operated with the collusion of law enforcement authorities.

“The hand of law
cannot reach them,” he said.

The extent and
lasting impact of the looting in sites like Dubrum may never be known, since
they have never been properly excavated to begin with

Al-Zubaidi, the
inspector in Dhi Qar, compared the current crisis to the looting of the
National Museum in Baghdad, a convulsive ransacking that shocked the world into
action. The museum’s fate continues to attract far more attention from the
government and international donors.

“Most of the pieces
that were stolen from the National Museum will come back,” al-Zubaidi said.
“Each piece was marked and recorded.”

Nearly half the
15,000 pieces looted from the museum have been returned.

“The pieces that were
stolen here will never be returned,” he said. “They are lost forever.”

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