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Looters grab priceless objects from Iraqi museums

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Gold and silver from ancient royal tombs, a priceless harp from 2,600 B.C., a solid bronze bust of King Naram-Sin. These and countless other artifacts from the collective birthplace of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were left defenseless Friday as Iraq descended into chaos.

At the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, where a tank shell had blackened the museum's ornate facade, Baghdadis came and went through the night by firelight, cradling loot.

Broken pottery and overturned statues lined the museum's ground floor and two men were seen carrying off an ancient portal.

In Mosul, considered by Iraqis the country's most civilized city, home to Iraq's equivalent of Harvard University, gangs stormed a museum storeroom containing ancient Assyrian and Babylonian stone tablets. A curator held them off, at least temporarily.

As news of looting spread Friday, some archaeologists lashed out at the military for not better protecting artifacts from the cradle of civilization. Especially important is Baghdad's national museum, central repository of Iraq's greatest cultural treasures.

"They've known the importance of this museum, I showed them where it was. There's no reason this should be looted," said McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, one of the world's top Mesopotamia scholars.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said he was unaware of any damage to museums.

"We haven't targeted anything, nor are we firing at these precious sites," Owens said.

Saving artifacts and quelling looting could not yet be the military's highest priority, he added. "We are doing our best to protect our forces. We are still engaged with people who want to kill us."

Late Friday, military officials said they could not determine whether U.S. forces were in control of the area around the national museum or whether the looting of it had been serious.

Gibson, who has traveled more than 30 times to Iraq, said he met repeatedly in January with Pentagon officials to map Iraq's museum and excavation sites. The meetings were to assure that the sites were spared from coalition bombing. Post-war looting was always the bigger concern, Gibson and others said.

Seven of Iraq's 12 regional museums were looted and 4,000 artifacts stolen during the lapse of authority that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

Before the bombing began this time, Gibson said, Iraqi officials moved nearly every artifact that could be safely carried from museums and storerooms around the country to the museum in Baghdad. The museum is the largest and most modern in the Middle East.

Thousands of the museum's artifacts were wrapped and placed in storage before the war, Gibson said. Some may have been placed in underground vaults. In 1991, Saddam used vaults of Baghdad's Central Bank for safekeeping the artifacts.

The protection has proven porous, however. Even under Saddam's tight rule, many of Iraq's treasures turned up on the black market.

"I fully expect to see some of these looted items show up on eBay in coming weeks," Gibson said.

It may never be known what artifacts have been lost.

"If the records are destroyed, we won't know they ever existed at all," said David Shillingford, a director at the Art Loss Register in New York, which maintains a worldwide database of missing and stolen art and artifacts.

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(Davis reported from Washington, Brown from Baghdad. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Mark McDonald in Mosul, Iraq, and Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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