'Pit bull' dogs Iraq Museum looters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The pit bull cuts a Napoleonic figure in the low-lit auditorium. "What I'm here for today is to give you the facts of what happened at the museum, and the facts are pretty interesting," Col. Matthew Bogdanos tells a crowd of defense and art history specialists assembled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From April to November last year, Colonel Bogdanos led a team of CIA and Customs agents and military officials in the first probe, and probably the most thorough, of the looting of Baghdad's National Museum and the role US troops played, or failed to play, in protecting it after the city's fall.

Now, after recovering more than 4,000 stolen artifacts, Bogdanos's team is in shambles, its members recalled to other projects or done with their tours of duty. The Marine colonel himself will be returning to civilian life at the end of March. So this winter he's touring the world, pleading with government officials, military experts, and antiquities specialists to continue his effort to recover more than 9,000 missing treasures dating back to the birth of city life, the invention of written language, the world's first laws.

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"These artifacts are the product of our shared history - they're mine as much as they are [museum director] Donny George's - and I want them back," he says.

In civilian life, Bogdanos is a Manhattan prosecutor; he made his nickname in court, dogging the likes of rappers Puff Daddy and Shyne. Last April, when Gen. Tommy Franks approved the colonel's request to lead the team investigating the museum looting, Bogdanos remembers him saying, "That pit bull thing you do in New York? You do that in Baghdad, and let the chips fall where they may."

Bogdanos is a spit-shined slickster built like a fireplug; he radiates a defensive energy that can be hard to take. He's also a trained classicist with a soft spot for Homeric epic and words like "exquisite." He is, in other words, a particularly intriguing leader and frontman for an investigation worth investigating.

"When I first heard the museum was being looted, I heard the same news reports you did: 170,000 of the world's most priceless artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. It was a huge cultural tragedy, beyond anything we could imagine," he tells the crowd. "It was the second coming of Genghis Khan."

When the team got to the museum on April 21, 13 days after they believe the looting of artifacts began and five days after US troops entered the compound, they found a different story. The 170,000 artifacts turned out to be the museum's entire collection - much of which had been stolen, but more of which lay strewn about the floors or had been secreted away for safekeeping by museum staff.

Numbers are slippery here. Though many of the museum's handwritten catalogs were meticulously kept, an uncounted number was destroyed by looters. Many stolen items came from storerooms where artifacts not yet cataloged lay crowded on open worktables; these losses will never be known. Besides, Bogdanos asks, if a bead from a shattered necklace and the world's first mask each count as one, what can we really say with numbers about the value of what's been lost?

Still, an estimated 13,500 artifacts were stolen from the museum last April. Of those, 4,300 have now been voluntarily returned by Iraqis or seized within the country and at national and international borders. Some, sawed-off heads of Greek statues and pieces of Islamic pottery, are thought to have been stolen by "professionals," Bogdanos says, possibly to order. Others, including many worthless copies, were taken apparently at random by looters who swept the contents of whole shelves into bags. Still others were stolen from a locked vault that showed no signs of forced entry. Bogdanos believes this theft could have been accomplished only by museum staff.

Staff members also hid many precious artifacts for safekeeping. Some 7,400 weathered the war in the vaults of Baghdad's Central Bank, nearly 40,000 ancient manuscripts were protected in a bomb shelter outside the city, and 8,400 artifacts are still in a hiding place about which curators swore a pact of secrecy before the war. Bogdanos says the museum will not reopen for at least a year.

Audience members, rapt through his many slides, seem so impressed overall with Bogdanos's work that in the question period many do not conceal their frustration at his defense of US forces' decision not to secure the museum.

"A parked tank is a sitting duck!" he barks. "If you're gonna park a tank in front of the museum you'd better write the letters to those boys' families now."

"What a stupid excuse," mutters an older audience member. When she stands to speak she praises his diplomatic and recovery efforts, but, "as a child who grew up in that museum, who has dusted the cabinets in that museum," begs him not to make excuses for US inaction.

Bogdanos tries to interrupt, but she's close to tears - "Please don't dirty your good work by spreading this lie" - and the crowd seems to be with her.

So he goes for a laugh.

"Excuse me, are we married? Ma'am? We're not married, right? That means I get to get a word in edgewise?" he asks.

"Yes, okay," she says.

"Next question," Bogdanos says, flashing that pit bull grin.

Looting timeline

April 7, 2003

US forces occupy downtown Baghdad.

April 8

Last staff members leave National Museum.

April 8-9

Museum window used as Iraqi sniper position; fired on by US forces.

April 9-12

Looters have unfettered access to museum.

April 10

US forces occupy Iraq's Oil Ministry.

April 12

Some museum staff return to work.

April 16

US forces enter museum compound.

April 21

Bogdanos's team begins probe of looting and recovery of artifacts.

Sources: Col. Matthew Bogdanos; globalsecurity.org; Associated Press.

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