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Looting of Iraq Museum most likely well-executed theft, officials say

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi museum officials and U.S. military authorities now think that the much-publicized looting of antiquities from the world-renowned Iraq Museum was most likely a well-executed theft, perhaps planned before Baghdad fell.

Museum officials have determined that most of the looting that did take place at the museum, home to more than 170,000 artifacts of human civilization, was focused on office machines and furniture, as at other government buildings, and that only selected antiquities were taken.

"The people who came in here knew what they wanted. These were not random looters," Donny George, the director general of Iraq's state board of antiquities, said Wednesday in front of the museum as he held up four glass cutters—red-handled with inch-long silver blades—that he found on the floor of the looted museum.

He pointed out that replica items—museum pieces that would have looked every bit as real to an angry mob as authentic items—were left untouched. The museum's extensive Egyptian collection, which is valuable, but not unique to the world, also was left alone.

The news cheered some experts in the United States. Clemens Reichel, a University of Chicago archaeologist who specializes in Mesopotamia, said the idea that the theft might have been carried out by knowledgeable thieves lessened the likelihood that priceless artifacts would be melted down for the value of their metal.

George said he hoped the United States would be able to help recover the items. "We always have hope here," he said.

Behind him stood three M-1A1 Abrams tanks, a show of protection by the U.S. military that many in the crowd were muttering arrived five days too late.

American soldiers on guard duty here said that while the damage in the museum areas seemed bad, the appearance was deceiving.

"It looked pretty bad inside, much worse than it was," said 2nd Lt. Erik Balascik, 23, of Allentown. Pa. "The administration building, the library, they are a mess. In the museum, there is broken glass and papers on the floor, but a lot of the collection was pulled before the war. And not as much is missing as first thought."

In fact, in the main collection, it now appears that few items are missing, and very little seems to have been the victim of mob violence.

Among the most valuable stolen pieces were the vase of Warka, from 3200 B.C., and the Basiqi, a bronze Acadian statue.

Still, the damage is grave, George said. "What we have lost and what has been broken is priceless. We will never put a number on it."

"Human civilization was here," he said. "There may have been other museums in the world that have small pieces of this story, but there was no collection so detailed with the evidence of human civilization."

The day began angrily at the museum, as an Army tank with the words "Compliments of the USA" squeezed through the main gate just after 10 a.m. As the tank pulled in, the first of three, it smashed a flowerbed, broke a water pipe and toppled a light post. Museum workers shook their heads, and complained that during the looting they had begged the military to protect the museum. While the Army did respond sporadically, it left and the looters, or thieves, returned.

"We have lost masterpieces from the Syrian and Sumerian ages, from 5,000 years ago," George said. He turned to a soldier, pointed his finger and said: "You are too late."

The decision finally to send a military guard to the museum is part of the next phase of protecting the city's buildings. The military already is protecting the electric company, the new police station and two large downtown hotels frequented by the international media.

George said he was shocked that the United States began guarding the country's Ministry of Oil before the museum, saying that told him where the American priorities stood. The American Archeological Association had appealed to Pentagon officials to spare the museum during the war and protect it afterward.

Hannah Abd al Khalid worked at the museum 35 years ago, and has been a devotee of it her entire life. She said she had trouble thinking about what the museum looked like now.

"Everything was valuable," al Khalid said. "I have been crying for two days."

The military perspective is that it did all it could to protect the museum at the time. During the looting, "the fighting was still going on. The Republican Guard headquarters are across the street, and they were far from secure," Army Maj. Michael Donovan said. "Frankly, we were here to protect people and property, but in the early days we had to choose, and we chose people."

The Iraq Museum isn't the only museum to succumb to looters. It's not even the oldest. Sixty miles southeast of Baghdad is Babylon, part of what is considered the cradle of civilization and home to the Hanging Gardens, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

During the war, Babylon was abandoned and the small museums leading to the ancient city were stripped to the walls.

Mohammed Ali, 30, a museum security worker, walled the doors of one building with cinderblocks to prevent looting. Born in Babylon and part of a third generation of Babylonians who have worked at the museum, Ali also was schooled at the museum.

"They took everything. They broke everything. Nothing is left," Ali said. "Babylon is surrounded by towns where the people are not educated."

But there was some hope: Most of the museum artifacts were replicas. The originals were in the Iraq Museum.


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MUSEUM