Though Devastating, Iraq Library Losses May Be Less Than Feared: Cultural Organizations Deplore Destruction, Call for Accurate Accounting. (Special News Report)

Article excerpt

Cultural organizations and intellectuals around the world have voiced their dismay over the destruction and theft of Iraqi antiquities from the National Library and National Museum in the looting and burning that followed the takeover of Baghdad by United States military forces in mid-April (AL, May, p. 26-27).

Two Bush administration advisers, Martin Sullivan, eight-year head of the U.S. President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, and committee member Gary Vikan, resigned in protest over the failure of U.S. forces to prevent the destruction. "We certainly know the value of oil, but we certainly don't know the value of historical artifacts," Vikan said in an April 17 Reuters report. "It didn't have to happen," said Sullivan. "In a preemptive war that's the kind of thing you should have planned for."

By late April, however, new information was being released contradicting reports that the National Library and its contents were a total loss. The Wall Street Journal reported April 28 that the devastation might not be total, as originally thought, and that Shiite Muslims had taken control of the library and were supervising the return of missing items in Baghdad.

The report showed a photo of Sheikh Mohammed al Timimi with stacks of library books that he had stored in a Baghdad mosque--six truckloads of manuscripts, records, and books, including everything from centuries-old Islamic texts to handwritten Hebrew prayer books. The Journal described the collection as "a prime chunk" of the library's pre-war holdings of one million books and 20 million documents and said the fate of the materials was "now the subject of delicate negotiations between Shiite officials and the newly arrived U.S. Army team."

The New York Times reported May 1 that John Limbert, senior adviser in the new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, said he had learned that 90% of the library's books and documents had been removed for safekeeping. He added, however, that the Awqaf religious library and its 6,500 Islamic manuscripts perished. The Times said some 50,000 Islamic and Arab manuscripts dating back 14 centuries were saved from the Saddam Manuscripts Library because Usama Nasir al Naqshabandi, director general of manuscripts for the Ministry of Culture, had his entire collection removed to a safe place one week before the war began in March. He also took 150 boxes of books and catalogs from the library.

The extent of the losses--both from the libraries and the National Museum--and how and why the looting was permitted by the U.S. military have become the subjects of fierce debate among Middle East scholars and librarians. Some question why soldiers were able to so effectively prevent the sacking of one government building in particular: the Oil Ministry. Others speculate that it may have been impossible for military personnel to tell who was looting and who was rescuing. Still others, including U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, theorize that the thefts were the work of organized criminals who used the tools and techniques of professional smugglers.

The Associated Press reported May 7 that, acting on a tip, investigators have found 339 tin trunks full of ancient books, scrolls, and manuscripts at a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. "Local residents protecting the site resisted giving the materials to museum officials, whom they associated with Saddam's regime," the report said, "but they agreed to allow U.S. officials to seal the place until what's inside can be handed over to a new government."

The Chicago Tribune reported May 5 that a military and civilian team headed by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos had "compiled an inventory over the weekend" of antiquities feared stolen from the National Museum that showed a mere 38 artifacts missing from the main gallery, as opposed to the thousands that had been widely reported. Other sources later discounted the significance of the Sullivan and Vikan resignations, pointing out that they were Clinton appointees who were about to be replaced by President Bush. …