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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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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