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A brief window opens into rarely seen Iraq Museum

The museum that was looted after the US invasion will open for a few hours Monday to highlight recovered pieces.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2009

Opening day: Staff at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad rushed over the weekend to prepare it for a partial reopening on Monday.

Jane Arraf

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Baghdad

Iraq Museum director Amira Edan, swamped by a pile of papers on her desk, sighs as she tries to explain the political firestorm swirling around the opening of the Iraq Museum, which became a symbol of the postinvasion looting that devastated Baghdad.

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Over the past two weeks, the Ministry of Tourism had declared it would reopen soon. The Ministry of Culture had said it wouldn't. During the ministerial feud, experts proclaimed that it was still to dangerous and the museum itself wasn't prepared for the public.

In the end, there was a compromise: The museum will reopen Monday for the first time in six years. But only eight of the museum's 26 galleries will be accessible, and for only a few hours, to highlight stolen pieces that have been recovered – some from as far away as Peru.

Even though this has turned into a gala affair – a banner nearby heralds the "reinauguration" of the museum by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – Ms. Edan, caught in the middle of the political dispute, is keen to give the event a much more modest description. "I think we can call it an exhibition," says the former head of the state board of antiquities.

Six years ago next month, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, looters swarmed Iraq's unprotected institutions. Outside the Iraq Museum – which tells the continuous story of 11,000 years of world civilization – US solders unprepared for the looting stood by in tanks without stopping it.

The resulting theft of more than 15,000 pieces from the museum sparked an international outcry and accusations of "cultural genocide."

Some of the 5,000 pieces that have either been voluntarily returned or seized will be highlighted in the exhibition attended by Mr. Maliki and senior Iraqi, US, and foreign officials but not the Iraqi public. Many of the pieces were returned with the help of the United States, which is eager to turn the page on this particular footnote of Mesopotamian history.

Notably absent will be the heart of the collection – including gold jewelry and ceremonial objects from the royal graves of Ur and Nimrud, which rival the treasures of King Tut's tomb.

"The collections of the Iraq Museum itself are in boxes in a safe place. We cannot show anything from that collection," says Edan. Officials will have to be content with looking at photos.

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