Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Setting the Record Straight on Iraqi Artifacts

Norm Geras links to a fascinating piece from Monday's Guardian on Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos. Bogdanos was the officer in charge of retrieving antiquities looted from the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In his interview with the Guardian, Bogdanos punctures many of the myths surrounding the museum incident. Considering how frequently Iraq war critics within the library profession have cited these myths, his comments are worth quoting:

He launches into a tirade against media reports of the looting (including the Guardian's account) which exaggerated the number of stolen objects, claiming 170,000 were missing. According to Bogdanos the figure was less than a tenth of that. And he is still infuriated by the suggestion that, as he puts it, "Coalition forces stood idly by as looters ransacked the museum." That, he insists, "is simply and undeniably factually inaccurate".

Between April 10 and 12 2003, when most of the thefts took place, Bogdanos says the museum was being used as a redoubt by Iraqi Special Republican Guard troops. "It simply could not have been secured without a battle that would have been devastating, or blood loss that would have been criminal on the part of the commander on the ground," he says.

(emphasis added-DD)

I eagerly await the international condemnation of Saddam Hussein's Special Republican Guard for standing by and allowing the looting to take place. I don't think I'll hold my breath while waiting, however.

Bogdanos is also critical of American units for not getting to the scene more quickly:

On the other hand, and with an equal measure of outrage, Bogdanos holds the US forces responsible for taking four days to arrive at the museum after the management's appeal for help on April 12. "It's not sinister. It's not evil. It's inexcusable," he says. In those four days, he says, the museum's Iraqi curators kept the thieves of Baghdad at bay themselves, but much of the damage had already been done.

Finally, Col. Bogdanos makes clear that many of the thefts were not the result of aimless looting:

Bogdanos believes there were three classes of robber at work: looters who cleared museum shelves at random; professionals who knew what they were looking for, perhaps taking orders from foreign dealers; and inside operators - employees or ex-employees who knew where particular treasures were hidden, using the chaos of the war as a cover to grab them.

The distinction between the second and third group is somewhat blurred, but Bogdanos presents compelling evidence that inside knowledge was involved. He followed the robbers' footprints into an underground storage room that had been bricked off from the rest of the museum, where an acrid stench suggested they had had to work in darkness, burning improvised torches. Somehow the thieves had found their way to a hidden set of keys and used them to open lockers containing a unique collection of ancient cylindrical seals. By some fluke, however, the keys had been dropped halfway through the heist and the thieves had been unable to recover them in the smoke-filled murk. They fled before they found the collection of gold coins, which survives almost intact.

Since the events of April 2003, Col. Bogdanos has worked tirelessly, and with some success, to retrieve the stolen artifacts. Hopefully, he can also help to dispel the myths that have arisen about how they were stolen.


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