A Civilisation Torn to Pieces ; Baghdad, Reports Robert Fisk, Is a City at War with Itself, at the Mercy of Thieves and Gunmen. and, in the City's Most Important Museum, Something Truly Terrible Has Taken Place: The Mob Has Turned upon Its Own Heritage, Stealing and Systematically Smashing Priceless Antiquities That Once Were the Glory of Iraq

By Fisk, Robert | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 13, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Civilisation Torn to Pieces ; Baghdad, Reports Robert Fisk, Is a City at War with Itself, at the Mercy of Thieves and Gunmen. and, in the City's Most Important Museum, Something Truly Terrible Has Taken Place: The Mob Has Turned upon Its Own Heritage, Stealing and Systematically Smashing Priceless Antiquities That Once Were the Glory of Iraq


Fisk, Robert, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them down on to the concrete.

Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history - only to be destroyed when America came to "liberate" the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation's thousands of years of civilisation.

Not since the Taliban embarked on their orgy of destruction against the Buddhas of Bamian and the statues in the museum of Kabul - perhaps not since the Second World War or earlier - have so many archaeological treasures been wantonly and systematically smashed to pieces.

"This is what our own people did to their history," the man in the grey gown said as we flicked our torches yesterday across the piles of once perfect Sumerian pots and Greek statues, now headless, armless, in the storeroom of Iraq's National Archaeological Museum. "We need the American soldiers to guard what we have left. We need the Americans here. We need policemen." But all that the museum guard, Abdul-Setar Abdul-Jaber, experienced yesterday was gun battles between looters and local residents, the bullets hissing over our heads outside the museum and skittering up the walls of neighbouring apartment blocks. "Look at this," he said, picking up a massive hunk of pottery, its delicate patterns and beautifully decorated lips coming to a sudden end where the jar - perhaps 2ft high in its original form - had been smashed into four pieces. "This was Assyrian." The Assyrians ruled almost 2,000 years before Christ.

And what were the Americans doing as the new rulers of Baghdad? Why, yesterday morning they were recruiting Saddam's hated former policemen to restore law and order on their behalf. The last army to do anything like this was Mountbatten's force in South-east Asia which employed the defeated Japanese army to control the streets of Saigon - with their bayonets fixed - after the recapture of Indo- China in 1945.

A queue of respectably dressed Baghdad ex-cops formed a queue outside the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad after they heard a radio broadcast calling for them to resume their "duties" on the streets. In the late afternoon, at least eight former and very portly senior police officers, all wearing green uniforms - the same colour as the uniforms of the Iraqi Baath Party - turned up to offer their services to the Americans, accompanied by a US Marine. But there was no sign that any of them would be sent down to the Museum of Antiquity.

But "liberation" has already turned into occupation. Faced by a crowd of angry Iraqis in Firdos Square demanding a new Iraqi government "for our protection and security and peace", US Marines, who should have been providing that protection, stood shoulder to shoulder facing them, guns at the ready. The reality, which the Americans - and, of course, Mr Rumsfeld - fail to understand is that under Saddam, the poor and deprived were always the Shia Muslims, the middle classes always the Sunnis, just as Saddam himself was a Sunni. So it is the Sunnis who are now suffering plunder at the hands of the Shia.

And so the gun-fighting that broke out yesterday between property owners and looters was, in effect, a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. By failing to end this violence - by stoking ethnic hatred through their inactivity - the Americans are now provoking a civil war in Baghdad.

Yesterday evening, I drove through the city for more than an hour. Hundreds of streets are now barricaded off with breeze blocks, burned cars and tree trunks, watched over by armed men who are ready to kill strangers who threaten their homes or shops.

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A Civilisation Torn to Pieces ; Baghdad, Reports Robert Fisk, Is a City at War with Itself, at the Mercy of Thieves and Gunmen. and, in the City's Most Important Museum, Something Truly Terrible Has Taken Place: The Mob Has Turned upon Its Own Heritage, Stealing and Systematically Smashing Priceless Antiquities That Once Were the Glory of Iraq
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