Recent bomb damage another setback for Iraq Museum

Damage sustained in the massive August attack on the Foreign Ministry adds to the museum's challenges. Iraqi officials say a number of key archaeological sites also need urgent international aid for repairs.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The massive suicide truck bombing outside Iraq's Foreign Ministry last month also shattered new display cases, windows, and doors at the Iraq Museum, underscoring the continuing struggles officials face six years after post-invasion looting stripped the museum of some of Iraq's irreplaceable antiquities.

"Showcases, windows, even the office of the director of excavations was damaged," says museum director Amira Eidan, interviewed on the sidelines of a Tourism Ministry conference on antiquities.

She says it could be several years before the renowned institution can be opened to the public.

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"Is it the time to reopen the museum and show these treasures?" she asks. "After improving the security situation, then we can think about reopening."

The bombings on Aug. 19 killed at least 90 people and wounded more than 600. But smaller attacks are carried out almost every day in and around Baghdad. On Thursday, market bombings in Muhmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, killed four people, while a truck bomb killed at least 19 in the Kurdish village of Wardek, near Mosul in the north.

In Baghdad, Tourism Minister Qahtan al-Jubori said he had called the conference to spotlight several of Iraq's estimated 12,000 archaeological sites that urgently need international aid to prevent or repair damage from environmental erosion, looting, and the proximity of coalition military bases.

Apart from ancient cities such as Babylon and Ninevah, officials highlighted lesser-known sites such as the Assyrian capital of Ashur in the north and Kifel in the south.

Kifel is believed to be the tomb of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel, who followed the Jews into Babylonian exile. The shrine is also revered by Muslim pilgrims.

Officials eye a second museum

In Baghdad, Tourism Ministry officials say they are trying plan a museum of Islamic antiquities in addition to the main Iraq Museum, which houses treasures from ancient Mesopotamia – the beginnings of the world's first civilization.

The museum opened briefly early this year to highlight a restored Assyrian gallery, but it remains closed to the public.

Its most valuable holdings – including gold jewelry and other treasures from the royal tombs in Nimrud – remain in bank vaults.

The Iraqi government is still working with other countries to identify and retrieve thousands of objects that remain missing after the museum was looted in 2003.

Beyond security problems, the museum also lacks a proper security system and air conditioning. Dr. Eidan says foreign countries have pledged to help renovate the museum, but the work is still in the planning stages.

Tourists? Please don't come – yet.

Although tourism could eventually be a major revenue-earner for Iraq, most officials believe that with security problems and lack of infrastructure, that could be a decade away.

"We get a few tourists, but we try very hard to discourage them," says Italy's ambassador to Iraq, Maurizio Milani, one of several envoys at the conference from countries involved in preserving Iraqi antiquities.

In a sign of the political wrangling that often overshadows government initiatives here, the US boycotted the conference because of an ongoing dispute between the Tourism and Culture ministries over responsibility for antiquities.

The Ministry of State for Tourism, which was set up after 2003 and hosted the meeting, is believed by some Iraqi officials to be an illegal entity. Some embassies refuse to deal with the Ministry of Tourism on purely archaeological issues.

"We look forward to the clarification and institution of the framework in which we can work together with the government of Iraq," Ambassador Milani told the conference, seated near an empty chair and accompanying US flag. "We think this would also help involvement of those not here, like our American friends."

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