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U.S. diplomat pledges help in recovering items stolen from museum

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The plundered Iraqi National Museum got a badly needed boost Tuesday as an American diplomat offered assistance in restoring it and recovering the hundreds of priceless antiquities stolen from it earlier this month.

John W. Limbert, the U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, also called for a halt to trading in Mesopotamian art and historic objects to eliminate the potential market for thieves.

"It is important to stop the trade," he said. "This is stolen property. It belongs to the Iraqi people."

Limbert, who speaks Arabic and Persian and holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies and history from Harvard University, said he had received "many offers" of help for the museum from U.S. government agencies, academic centers and other institutions, and pledged that the restored museum would be better than before the war.

Limbert, who arrived in Baghdad on Monday as part of the U.S. interim administration led by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, spent nearly two hours meeting with museum officials and touring the museum's barren and devastated halls.

Together, they walked through fragments of Iraq's heritage. A cracking noise could be heard as they stepped over stamps, currency, negatives, slides, papers and other debris left behind in ransacked administrative offices. Door after door had been broken down, and nearly $7,000 in Iraqi currency had been removed from two safes in the accountant's office.

Beleaguered museum officials, their spirits obviously sagging as they surveyed toppled pedestals and broken glass cases, welcomed Limbert's offer after an initially lukewarm reception. Muayad Damerji, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture for Archaeological Affairs, said an inventory of the stolen objects would be published and circulated to art dealers, galleries and international organizations such as UNESCO and Interpol.

He said the museum's top priority was obtaining secure facilities, and he asked Limbert for U.S. assistance in protecting artwork at another facility that was still being plagued by looters. Arrangements were being made for Army assistance in moving the paintings Wednesday.

The main museum was looted April 10 and 11, just after U.S. Army tanks entered the area. Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz of the 1st Battalion 64th Armored Brigade, whose unit occupied the area, said Tuesday that pro-Saddam fighters had defended the museum. They left behind two long bunkers dug into the museum's front lawn, which were still covered by corrugated aluminum and dirt.

Before it closed in early March in anticipation of the war, the museum had received about 200 visitors a day. Its two buildings, erected in 1966 and 1984, are plain in design, and it had no need for timed tickets, audio guides or a docent desk.

But the people who worked in it, some of whom continue to go to work, said they were heartbroken by the loss.

"I have not been inside, because I don't want to see it destroyed," said Mustafa Marouf, a specialist in cuneiform writing.

Marouf's bosses took Limbert on a tour that began in the State Hall of Antiquities and Heritage. Nawala al Mawatawali, a museum curator, said well-known missing objects included the Votiv Vase and statues of Entemena, Shalmanser and Basatki from the first millennium B.C. and third millennium B.C.

Damerji pointed to a heavy cuneiform tablet that looters hadn't managed to carry off.

"They couldn't move it," he said, smiling.

Museum officials had taken steps to protect objects from bombing, placing sandbags on floors, for example, to cushion falling statuary. But the pillaging surprised and overwhelmed them.

Limbert, a 30-year career diplomat who was among the U.S. hostages held for 444 days by Iranians at the U.S. Embassy in Iran starting in November 1979, has written numerous articles and a book on Middle Eastern history, literature, and politics. He said he planned to meet with museum officials again Wednesday to help figure out what help was needed.

"This is not only a symbol of the nation, but it's also a symbol of humanity," he said.


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