Most of Baghdad's treasures are safe

Friday, May 9, 2003

The case of the missing artifacts at the Baghdad National Museum is an example of how information can become a weapon in the war of ideology when the fighting with real bullets and bombs achieves a level of success unthinkable to naysayers.

Opponents of the U.S. war to end Iraq's reign of terror under Saddam Hussein had painted an ugly picture as coalition troops began bombing and taking control of cities one by one. When Saddam's grip on the country collapsed, critics of the war and, more specifically, of the Bush administration jumped on every opportunity to emphasize any negative impact of the battles that had just been fought.

One such opportunity appeared to fall into the laps of critics and protesters with the first reports of "looting" of the Baghdad museum.

The museum rightly holds a position of prominence in the world of archeology and the preservation of historical culture. As the cradle of civilization, the fertile crescent of that portion of Iraq that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers holds some of the oldest and most interesting records of human development and achievement to be found anywhere. Much of that record was housed in the Baghdad museum.

While U.S. troops were still securing vast portions of Baghdad in early April, the museum became a target for thieves. At least some of the thievery, it now appears, was highly organized and targeted specific items, including some of the oldest and rarest artifacts.

Initial news reports focused on a claim made by the distraught deputy director of the museum who claimed that 170,000 items has been stolen, lost or destroyed. That information has been widely repeated in account after account of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, even though later information indicates that estimate was grossly exaggerated. As late as last week, articles in publications as notable as New Yorker magazine were still making passing references based on the 170,000-item figure without further clarification.

This week, the curator of the British Museum said that 30 to 40 items of critical importance are missing.

As various news organizations have reported since early April, there are many explanations for the reduction from 170,000 missing items to 30 or 40.

For example, it was learned shortly after the liberation of Baghdad that precautions had been taken prior to the war to stash away many artifacts for safekeeping. Hundreds of artifacts have been returned by Iraqi citizens who claim they took them to make sure they were protected. Hundreds more artifacts have been recovered from thieves trying to move their loot out of the country. Some of the artifacts have shown up among merchandise for sale in Baghdad shops and open-air markets. In one such case, a journalist purchased an artifact and returned it to the museum.

Not all journalists, it seems, were so scrupulous. Some have been found in possession of small artifacts apparently taken as souvenirs. And there were a few instances of military personnel who helped themselves to a trinket or two to take home.

It will be weeks before the museum can fully assess its losses. Some of the treasures may never be recovered. For the most part, however, most of the treasures -- some of them dating from 7000 B.C. -- are in safe hands.

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