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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Thieves of Baghdad 

There is a short and interesting article lurking on page 175 of the November issue of The Atlantic, which arrived at my mail box Saturday. Lauren Sandler, a freelance writer back from Iraq, has traced the looting of Iraq's antiquities before the war in an article($) titled "The Thieves of Baghdad." The teaser in italics at the top of the piece gives away the game:
Everyone knows about the looting of Iraq's museums during last year's war. What almost no one knows is that most of the museums' holdings had been stolen and sold years before—and not by mobs of Iraqis off the street.

The reason, though, that "almost no one knows" the true story is that archeologists and curators have been lying about the timing of the looting of the museum:
One afternoon in April of last year, archaeologists from all over the world streamed into the plush new auditorium of the British Museum for a conference on the cultural reconstruction of Iraq. Donny George, the stout, graying Iraqi who had become the public face of Iraq's National Museum, gave a detailed report on the infamous looting of the museum three weeks earlier, following the fall of Baghdad. Some 170,000 pieces—a collection of antiquities that together documented the beginning of civilization—had been stolen, he told the group.
This figure -- 170,000 looted artifacts -- became the headline number behind countless mainstream media articles that alleged that the American military had unforgiveably failed to protect these irreplaceable antiquities. This meme has survived to this day, but only because the national media have not seen fit to publish the more truthful story that reflects well on American policy:
Despite George's claims about the extent of the looting, the number of catalogued objects stolen from the museum that April was only about 3,000, not 170,000. The figure George cited at the conference in London was actually the total number of pieces in the museum's collection, the bulk of which had been hidden before coalition forces reached Baghdad. When I spoke with George, several months after the conference, he explained that he had been well aware of the true figure but felt he needed to obscure it: if he had announced that most of the museum's artifacts had been moved, looters would have searched for them.

But there are still a tremendous number of artifacts missing. Where are they? Saddam's henchmen (various people named "al-Tikriti") had already taken them for sale on the black market:
George said ... there had ... been two phases of looting: the widely publicized one that began with the occupation of the city, and an earlier, secret one that ran throughout much of Saddam Hussein's rule and was in no small measure permitted by the regime. The earlier looting, as I discovered during a trip to Iraq last fall, was carried out so systematically, and on such a large scale, that it dwarfs the thefts that occurred after the fall of Baghdad. Moreover, the April looting may have occurred in part because it would provide cover for the prior thefts.

There are several things that might be said about Sandler's article, which I recommend that you read in its entirety if you can get your hands on it. First, it is a detailed account of one tiny example of the profound corruption that was inherent in Saddam's awful regime. Second, it is astonishing that Sandler did not publish such an article that so manifestly exonerates the American military more quickly -- she apparently knew the essence of this story for more than a year. One wonders whether the strenuously anti-Bush editors of The Atlantic were reluctant to publish an article that would destroy one of the real tear-jerker anti-war stories of the post-war era.

Third, Sandler's article assembles compelling evidence that the looting of Iraq's antiquities under Saddam only came to an end because of the invasion. Indeed, if Sandler is to be believed, the removal of Saddam by the coalition was the only reason that the systematic looting came to a halt. The obvious conclusion -- though too pro-Bush for The Atlantic to write directly -- is that the collections of Iraq's museums are much larger today than they would have been had Saddam remained in power.

So the next time somebody opposed to the war bends your ear about how our soldiers failed to protect the museums, you might make the point that our chosen method of protection -- the removal of the Baathists from power -- was more effective than their chosen method, which was arguing that Saddam wasn't a threat.

5 Comments:

By Blogger Dean Esmay, at Thu Oct 07, 06:48:00 AM:

It's pretty sad how the US was torn apart for that wasn't it?

Some people never have anything but bad things to say, and then never apologize when they're wrong.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Oct 07, 03:54:00 PM:

Yep. It has cedrtainly gotten harsh out there.  

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