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First phase: theft of Iraq's cultural treasures

Looting is what this war is all about

By Deirdre Griswold

Pumped up by the awesome destructive power of their technology, the U.S. military forces that took control of Iraq's major cities immediately presided over a spree of looting and desecrating of libraries, museums and other national buildings that held the most cherished artifacts and treasures of the area known as the "Fertile Crescent"--regarded in the West as the cradle of civilization.

It was the most calculated and crude assault on the national pride not only of Iraq but of the entire Arab world. Julius Caesar's burning of the great library in Alexandria was minor by comparison.

Moreover, it is clear that this looting was long planned by profiteers in the military and civilian life who knew the great value of Iraq's cultural treasures. In the 1991 Gulf War, scores of regional Iraqi museums were looted and some 5,000 valuable objects stolen. Many turned up later on the art market in Europe and the U.S. (USA Today, April 15)

This is but a foretaste of the wholesale looting of Iraq's oil resources planned by the White House and the Pentagon, along with British imperialism's willing participation--all in the name of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

U.S. troops were in control

The planned character of this looting was described by Robert Fisk of the London Independent in an April 14 report from Baghdad:

"Iraq's scavengers have thieved and destroyed what they have been allowed to loot and burn by the Americans--and a two-hour drive around Baghdad shows clearly what the U.S. intends to protect. After days of arson and pillage, here's a short but revealing scorecard.

"U.S. troops have sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. They did nothing to prevent looters from destroying priceless treasures of Iraq's history in the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and in the museum in the northern city of Mosul, or from looting three hospitals."

The looting of the museum was described in greater detail in an April 13 New York Times article by John F. Burns.

"The National Museum of Iraq recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains of Meso po tamia more than 7,000 years ago," he wrote. "But, once American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's government this week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters."

Burns said it was "likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history." Among the artifacts looted were 5,000-year-old clay tablets containing what are believed to be the world's first written words.

"This is one of the most important mus eums in the entire world," said Zainab Bahrani, professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University. "It's part of our global cultural heritage--it's important for all of us. ...

"We gave [the Pentagon] a list of things to protect; we gave them maps and the coordinates of sites and museums; we gave them a list of cultural-heritage priorities to protect the minute they got into the country; and at the top of the list we said, 'Place guards at the museums.'"

Giving the coordinates to the Pentagon was like asking the fox to guard the chickens.

Art collectors lobbied

Even before the looting started, it was reported that at a meeting in January, a group of art collectors had lobbied the Bush administration to make it easier to sell Iraqi art in the U.S.

"Dominque Collon, assistant keeper in the department of the ancient near east at the British Museum, said today that alarm bells had been set ringing by reports of a meeting between a coalition of antiquities collectors and arts lawyers, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), with U.S. defense and state department officials before the start of the war. The group offered help in preserving Iraq's invaluable archaeological collections, but archaeologists fear there is a hidden agenda to ease the way for exports post-Saddam.

"The ACCP's treasurer, William Pearlstein, has described Iraq's laws as 'retentionist,' and the group includes influential dealers who favor a relaxation of the current tight restrictions on the ownership and export of antiquities.

"Dr. Collon said: 'This is just the sort of thing that will encourage looting. Once there is American blessing they have got a market for these antiquities and it becomes open season.'" (The Guardian, London, April 10) And so it did.

U.S. troops protect oil ministry

Robert Fisk points out that, while U.S. soldiers did nothing to stop the looting of museums, libraries and most government ministries, the Pentagon kept iron control over some buildings.

"The Americans have, though, put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remain untouched--and untouchable--because tanks and armored personnel carriers and Humvees have been placed inside and outside both institutions. And which ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of Interior, of course--with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq--and the Ministry of Oil. The arc hives and files of Iraq's most valuable asset--its oilfields and, even more important, its massive reserves--are safe and sound, sealed off from the mobs and looters, and safe to be shared, as Washington almost certainly intends, with American oil companies."

Tikrit, the city in northern Iraq where Saddam Hussein spent his childhood, fell after heavy aerial bombardment. A Reut ers report from Tikrit in the April 14 New York Times described the scene: "U.S. soldiers and crowds of Iraqi scavengers descended on the palace by the banks of the Tigris River Monday after Tikrit, the last major stronghold of Saddam's forces, fell to an attack by Marines backed up by warplanes and attack helicopters.

"In the lush palm gardens around the opulent sandstone buildings, Marines washed, shaved and used the flowerbeds as toilets. ... Inside, behind the palace's large wooden doors, was a scene of devastation."

Much is made of the "opulence" of Iraq's presidential palaces. But the same could be said for every nation-state. They all have state buildings--where guests are received, state functions take place and gifts from foreign leaders are displayed.

Britain, Washington's "coalition" partner, has the ornate Buckingham Palace and many castles scattered around England, Ireland and Wales for the royal family.

The U.S. has the posh White House, of course, plus an "informal" presidential retreat at Camp David. Despite its rustic surroundings, Camp David is not just a few modest cabins in the woods. It is a 125-acre luxury retreat in the mountains of Maryland surrounded by a high-security fence and sporting its own heliport, golf course, swimming pools, stables and bridal paths, shooting range, tennis courts, conference rooms and library. And that's just what is above-ground. In deference to the presumed democratic character of the U.S. government, no expense is spared in making all this appear as folksy as possible.

The U.S. government also has secret, high-security locations for its leaders--remember Dick Cheney's many disappearances?--that cost the taxpayers many billions of dollars to build and maintain.

U.S. television has reported on the devastation in Iraq with a tone of satisfaction. It speaks of "inequality" and the masses getting "revenge"--with no indication at all that these "masses" may include mercenaries and agents of huge art dealers.

What would its coverage be like if the masses in the U.S. were to take revenge on the super-rich here? The gap between rich and poor is greater in the United States than in any other country in the world.

The business magazine Forbes compiles a list of the world's billionaires. The most recent, for 2001, included nine U.S. billionaires whose wealth came from media ownership. They were John W. Kluge, $10.5 billion; Anne Cox Chambers, $10.1 billion; Barbara Cox Anthony, $10.1 billion; Sumner M. Redstone of Viacom, $8.1 billion; Charles Ergen, $6.2 billion, satellite TV; Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., $5.7 billion; Samuel I. Newhouse Jr., $5.0 billion; Donald E. Newhouse, $5.0 billion; and Robert E. (Ted) Turner, $3.8 billion, cable TV.

Many of the looted art treasures of Iraq are sure to find their way into the private collections of billionaires like these media moguls.

You won't see that on TV.

Reprinted from the April 24, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

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