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Iraq's looted heritage makes a steady - if slow - comeback

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2004


It's taken months of removing soot, tackling water damage, and reorganizing, but readers and researchers are back at Iraq's National Library.

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Nearly a year and a half after one of Iraq's chief repositories of historical record was looted and burned, surviving archives and manuscripts are being cleaned and catalogued - while the director ventures out occasionally to scour book markets for lost treasures.

At the same time, the Iraq Museum remains closed. Its location near a hotbed of resistance puts it in the crossfire of frequent attacks on US forces. But its directors express high hopes of reopening amuseum - perhaps within a year - that far outshines that of the Hussein era.

Today both institutions, early symbols of postwar troubles, are looking toward a fresh start.

"We want to be not just a part of Iraq's new democratic and liberal culture, but a leader in it," says Saad Eskander, a Kurdish historian who was appointed library director last December. "There's still a lot of work to do and we could use much more help, but the library has come a long way since those dark days after the war."

After suffering disheartening losses, Iraq's cultural heritage is coming back. Although some valuable museum pieces and whole periods of archives are lost forever, thousands of artifacts have been recovered, while books and manuscripts are being restored. International assistance is playing a key role, with even the US - criticized for failing to prevent the losses in the first place - winning praise from some Iraqis for keeping culture on its reconstruction agenda.

The scenes of immediate postwar mayhem, during which US troops stood by, remain a vivid memory for many. Just last week, former US administrator Paul Bremer recalled the "horrid looting" of that time. The looters had many targets, but Iraq's cultural heritage was a chief victim. Valued objects were stolen and recent archives were destroyed for apparently political reasons.

As Iraq's occupiers, the Americans took the brunt of the blame for the losses, and later were criticized for not doing enough to reestablish order and repair the damage. Together with the sensitive issue of US military installations at historical archaeological sites like Babylon, the lingering resentment has prompted some officials to dismiss American interest in restoring Iraq's cultural life.

"The Americans' interest is not in antiquities and the arts," says Jawad Bashara, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture. "Their priorities are security, oil, and arms. They care nothing for our cultural heritage, and that's too bad."

US officials reject such charges, pointing to expenditures of millions of dollars on cultural affairs. In particular, they say, US military officials have been responsive to Iraqi concerns on cultural matters. As proof, they cite a US commitment to remove its military base from the Babylon site by the end of the year, even though it will cost millions.

"These issues are taken very seriously, on Babylon in particular. The generals responsible flew down as soon as the problem of the installations came to light" last May, says one US official here. "There's a broad acknowledgment of the sensitivities."

At the National Library, director Eskander says the blame for cultural losses must be laid at the feet of Iraqis and Americans alike. Receiving guests in an office that before the war was the kitchen of the library's theater, Eskander says, "There is no question the Americans neglected their duty as military occupiers. But what happened to this library was still primarily the fault of the former director general."

About 60 percent of the records and documents of modern Iraq were lost, along with virtually all historical maps and photos, and perhaps 95 percent of rare books, Eskander says. Almost all equipment was destroyed or carried away as well.

The wrong relocation

The former director - once the preferred poet of Saddam Hussein - was dismissed after accusations that he removed rare books from the collection. But Eskander faults the former director for a different decision: moving the library's rare books and national archives to the basement of the nearby ministry of tourism in the prewar frenzy.