Neue Einheit  -  Internet Statement 2003-21


Iraq under the occupying power – The dimensions of cultural vandalism

Since the occupation of Baghdad by U.S. troops the reports on lootings, vandalism, arsons, as well as on the role of the occupying forces in all of that don't end. Worst devastations of the cultural inheritance and the economic infrastructure are happening, according to numerous corresponding reports from different sources, at least under approving acceptance on the part of the occupying force which doesn't use its obviously existing possibilities for stepping in, which from Rumsfeld down to the single soldier even pats and cheers up the gangs, according to some notes even organises them, and which at all events carries the decisive responsibility for what is going on. After the great destructions had already happened and aroused indignation worldwide, U.S. representatives little by little gave some remarks against them and very hesitantly positioned this or that guard. These are futile attempts to distract from the US’ responsibility.

A summary shall be tried here about what was destroyed and what the destructions actually mean, according to many single press reports and articles.

  • The Iraqi national museum was looted largely, and not looted inventory was simply destroyed. This concerns primarily the archeological treasures from the several thousand years old history of Mesopotamia.
  • The historical archives of Iraq were burned down, which contained materials from Ottoman time, from the time of the royal rule and the later state history of Iraq.
  • The Koran library with its inventory of the early history of Islam was burned down.
  • The Iraqi national library: burned down.
  • The museum for modern art: burned down.
  • The museum in Mossul was also looted.
  • What happened with the further regional museums of Iraq as well as the innumerable first-rate archeological places of the country, such as Niniveh and Ur, has not been reported. One must logically fear the worst about these, too.

A further story is the apparently systematic destruction of the economic infrastructure and the hospitals of Baghdad by gangs, which allegedly couldn't be identified till now, since the US’ take-over. The soldiers continue to watch uninterestedly how such facilities are attacked, demolished and put into fire, according to a multitude of reports, and are far from working on the restoration of the current and water supply. Only by armed resistance of their employees these facilities can be defended from case to case. Enterprises of the elementary food supply are also attacked. There was even a case reported in the meantime, where the occupying power has itself installed set-guns in an electric power station, so that the entrance was refused to its employees; the Americans themselves, however, do not repair it (Al Jaseera, 4-21-3). A water-tower must be guarded by armed citizens, as an eyewitness reports. The lootings of the hospitals probably have already led to thousands of further victims in the population. All this is terror against the Iraqi people. This is the direct continuation of the bombings of some weeks and the continuing open military terror of the occupying forces and the embargo of 12 years, with the help of criminal and bought elements.

Shall Baghdad be driven into the famine and the epidemics, so that the population implores the occupying power for survival and accepts all its political conditions?

Now some details of the crimes which have become publicly known till now:

1. The devastation of the Iraqi national museum

Without exaggeration, this museum can be described as one of the most important archeological museums of the world. Its inventory for the complete Mesopotamian history since about 4000 BC is unique in number and quality. Mankind owes decisive insights into the social development to the investigation of this history which extends over a period of several thousand years since the Sumerians. The emergence of the private property, the landed property, the money, the sales contracts, the urban culture etc. are here covered so early and broadly as hardly elsewhere. Numerous cuneiform script clay panels, the big mass of which couldn't yet be analyzed at all, contain things as concrete as e.g. purchase and debt contracts from which one can track the social development.
In particular, also for the scientific knowledge of the emergence of religious ideas and legal systems, from which among others also the emergence of the Jewish religion was nurtured later, from which in turn the Christian religion and the Islam received decisive impulses, the history of Mesopotamia is an essential key.Not only particularly well-known and valuable exhibits were stolen here, but the inventory which wasn't stolen was smashed quite systematically. So this it is not at all only art robbery but vandalism against the historical inheritance of mankind. It is destruction of an essential body of evidence for the historical enlightment, among other things particularly about the essence and the development of the religions.

Clay panels with written notes were an important partial stock of the museum. In an interview, Hans Jörg Nissen, emeritus for Near Eastern archeology at the Free University Berlin, tells the daily “Die Welt”, that the national museum has owned
30-40,000 cuneiform script clay panels, of which perhaps 10% are analyzed till now (4-17-03). Nissen says among other things:

"There is just again and again the unique piece in the innumerable economy panels in Baghdad which closes a gap of our knowledge.”
„Die Welt“: “Can you mention a famous text?”
Nissen: “Tell Harmal, the earliest mathematical panels, they are unique. If they were lost, it would be a bad blow.”
„Die Welt“: “Did you have contact to the colleagues in Baghdad?”
Nissen: “I try it constantly but the telephones are dead.”
„Die Welt“: “So you don't know what was destroyed?”
Nissen: “No, but when I judge from the pictures of the empty display cases from the show rooms, my present objects of research, the panels exhibited there became victims of looters or destructors. It is about the oldest written documents of Mesopotamia, originating from the time around 3000 BC, from old Sumerian time. I think that in any case these texts are lost. If the magazines were also destroyed, we face an inconceivable loss of written memory.”

2. Clear indications for international preparations for the lootings

The looters and vandals proceeded not at all only spontaneously. At an UNESCO meeting in Paris on 4-17-03 at which countermeasures were to be discussed, McGuire Gibson, president of the American union for research in Baghdad, said: “They were able to take keys for vaults and take out important Mesopotamian materials put in safes. I have a suspicion it was organised outside the country, in fact I’m pretty sure it was.” (Independent 4-18-03, Paul Peachey)

In this context the activities of an U.S. organization must be mentioned, the art dealer syndicate’s "American Council for Cultural Policy” (ACCP), a private union of rich collectors and influential advocates based in New York, which openly demands that the import of treasures stolen in Iraq be made easier, contrary to the valid international regulations. (“Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” 4-11-03)

The ACCP demands for example changes of the “constricting Iraqi customs regulations" – which the occupying power might well help to bring about. The meaning can only be that the booty could "legally" be spent now abroad and to the USA.
Channel One of the German Television (ARD) had an interview with Mounir Bouchenaki, the deputy UNESCO Secretary General who talked about a mafia, which already after the Iraq war of 1991 internationally commercialized robbed Iraqi art treasures. The ACCP in NY, Bouchenaki said, is a "lobby organisation" which "is in complete contradiction to all international laws and conventions" according to the legal experts of UNESCO. The ACCP had refused to give an interview to ARD. (4-13-03)

It looks like a supplement of these criminal activities if Powell announces - after the lootings and the international protests – that the US were now willing to become custodians and would track down stolen properties. Even the daily “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” puts this under the header “To Be Asking for Trouble” (4-15-03)

3. The USA had been warned of endangering the cultural treasures before the war and had promised measures themselves.

The US cannot fall back on the excuse that the endangering of the museums and archeological treasures took them by surprise, although they say so, of course. Several sources testify that they attempted in contacts with the Pentagon prior to the war to obtain measures against encroachments and destructions of cultural sites, and that the US military itself gave such assurances. “…some historians and experts say the were assured months ago by the Pentagon that, in the event of war, cultural sites would be protected.” (Independent, 4-19-03, Rupert Cornwell)
”At a briefing in Kuwait on 5 April, Major Christopher Varhola, a cultural anthropologist attached to the US Army, said that US military planning had included protecting cultural sites. ‘All around Iraq, there are a number of museums, in particular the National Museum of Baghdad, that hold priceless materials,’ he said. ‘ The US military is eager to co-ordinate with any organisation dedicated to the task of preservation which transcends military and operational necessity.’” (Independent, 4-18-03, Paul Peachey)
The coordination indeed took place later, with the gangs of looters and vandals, and all calls for the due protection were disdainfully dismissed.

4. Lootings are only one part of the game. Fanatical destructions for destruction’s sake are the other one.
- The fate of the most important libraries and museums of Baghdad

The lootings for the purpose of making money, which rely on a pre-organised international art robbery mafia, are only one part of the dark conditions which arrived under the US occupation and probably correspondingly under the British occupation. This must be stressed again. The destructions of treasures have probably even caused the major damage. That this strategy plays an eminent role becomes evident from the burning of the most important libraries of Baghdad. Here, according to the eyewitnesses’ accounts, burning, not looting was dominant.

“The burning of Iraq's National Library is a 'devastating loss' and is the equivalent of losing the British Library, international academics said. The US military's failure to prevent the calamity must be investigated to prevent it happening again, they added.

After the looting and burning at government ministries and the ransacking of Iraq's main archaeological museum, the burning of the library, with its thousands of rare printed books and hand-written archives, marks a further erasure of Iraq's past, obliterating large chunks of Middle Eastern history and destroying many unique documents.

Geoffrey Roper, head of the Islamic Bibliography Unit at Cambridge University, said: 'If people's personal possessions are lost they can be replaced, but these things can never be replaced.
The archive contained a lot of early Arabic printed books, which are very scarce and very fragile, a lot of which have survived in just one or two editions. We've also lost material from the library of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which contained rare early legal and literary materials, priceless Korans, calligraphy and illumination – the kind of thing that appeared in international exhibitions in the past,' he said."  (Independent 4-16-03, Andrew Gumbel)

Robert Fisk wrote in a piece for the daily “The Independent” on 15 April:

“So yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then the arsonists. It was the final chapter in the sacking of Baghdad. The National Library and Archives, ­ a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq, ­ were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was set ablaze.

I saw the looters. One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law from a boy of no more than 10. Amid the ashes of Iraqi history, I found a file blowing in the wind outside: pages of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.”

If this passage corresponds to the facts, it means that in particular documents pertaining to the dirty treacherous re-colonisation which under the overall control of the British was carried through against the Arabs during World War I, and the results of which were taken over by the US later, were destroyed.

”And the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed?

When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning ­ flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows ­ I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire". I gave the map location, the precise name ­ in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene ­ and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

There was a time when the Arabs said that their books were written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries in Baghdad. In the National Archives were not just the Ottoman records of the Caliphate, but even the dark years of the country's modern history, handwritten accounts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, with personal photographs and military diaries,and microfiche copies of Arabic newspapers going back to the early 1900s.

But the older files and archives were on the upper floors of the library where petrol must have been used to set fire so expertly to the building. The heat was such that the marble flooring had buckled upwards and the concrete stairs that I climbed had been cracked.”

The annihilation of the inventory of the Koranic library basically bears the same fundamentalistic anti-knowledge character as the case of the Mesopotamian inventory in the National Museum. This event, by the way, gives an interesting aspect as to the identity of the arsonists. Whereas it seems quite possible to instigate Muslims to annihilate the documents of other cultures and religions, it is quite improbable that they burn Korans. The excuse of the occupying force, that fanaticized poor Muslims were responsible for the vandalism and the arson, seems quite difficult to maintain in the case of the Koranic library.

5. Observations about the organised character of the arsons.

In another article Robert Fisk writes ( The Independent, 4-17-03):

“….but something is terribly wrong when US soldiers are ordered simply to watch vast ministries being burnt by mobs and do nothing about it.

Because there is also something dangerous – and deeply disturbing – about the crowds setting light to the buildings of Baghdad, ncluding the great libraries and state archives. For they are not looters. The looters come first. The arsonists turn up later, often in blue-and-white buses. I followed one after its passengers had set the Ministry of Trade on fire and it sped out of town.

The official US line on all this is that the looting is revenge – an explanation that is growing very thin – and that the fires are started by "remnants of Saddam's regime", the same "criminal elements", no doubt, who feature in the marines' curfew orders. But people in Baghdad don't believe Saddam's former supporters are starting these fires. And neither do I.

The looters make money from their rampages but the arsonists have to be paid. The passengers in those buses are clearly being directed to their targets. If Saddam had pre-paid them, they wouldn't start the fires. The moment he disappeared, they would have pocketed the money and forgotten the whole project.“

A power like the US which is responsible for such things, is a danger for the whole of mankind, not only because of its weapons of mass destruction, but because of the fanaticism which here shows through, against the historical sciences and the means for emancipation which these sciences provide for the human development. Here a reactionary will to set mankind back by force to a mentality prior to the enlightenment becomes perceptible. It is not by chance that the president of the US offers religious-fundamentalistic ideas about his country’s divine mission to commit wars of aggression. Although this cannot succeed, as mankind has already too much knowledge and such a world dictatorship is impossible, one must on the other hand be aware of the losses this ultra-reaction may lead to, and of the efforts required to put it down.

Editorial Staff of Neue Einheit
- wgr -
April 21, 2003

translation from the German original