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Iraqi National Museum anticipates opening of some exhibits

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi National Museum, ransacked by looters who destroyed and carried off priceless cultural artifacts, may reopen at least partially in a few months, officials said Wednesday.

Repairing the damage at the museum, at least enough for a "soft" opening of some of the museum's exhibits, would be a much-needed symbol of the country's future as well as its past, and a point of pride, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III of the 3rd Infantry Division said the museum might be ready for public visitors in as little as two or three months, although it will take as long as a year to clean up the damage wrought to the museum's records and many of its exhibits.

"Our goal is to try to get it up, get it open to the people as quickly as we can," Blount said.

Some of the museum's missing treasures have been returned by Iraqis who said they took the items to protect them from further damage.

"Not all the people were looters. Some people broke in and now say we will not tell you our name or address, but we took these items to keep them safe and we will bring them back," said Jabir Khalil, director general of the state antiquities department and head of the museum. "These people are called clean hands."

But the "dirty hands" who did the most damage knew exactly what they were looking for, taking only specific items and leaving behind air conditioners, furniture and other valuables.

"The staff is going to estimate which finds are missing and how many but we need time to work," Khalil said in a short interview from the museum's administrative offices. "We will try to open soon, but it takes weeks and weeks."

Iraqis have also been walking up to soldiers and giving them artifacts in the street, Blount said in a briefing at the Republican Palace.

"A lot of people are working toward getting those things back and with some degree of success," Blount said. "There are a lot of agencies that are stepping forward to help, and we're providing the security and some of the heavy lifting."

Coalition forces were blamed for not keeping a closer watch on the museum in the first place, and Blount admitted that the military had not anticipated looting "on this scale." But Blount said only 10 to 15 percent of the museum's artifacts were stolen, with most of the treasures packed away in vaults and in storage by museum officials anticipating bombing.

Khalil downplayed the value of many of the returned objects and said the damage will take years to repair, a view echoed by Blount.

"They're going at it slowly, and they are tying to reassemble everything," Blount said. "There's literally just thousands of thousands of desk drawers and filing cabinets of files and pictures dumped on the floor."


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