Recovering Iraq's Past

It's easy to sit back in New York, London, or Paris, where no one is shooting at you, and complain that US and British forces could have done more to prevent the deplorable looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other cultural treasures.

In hindsight, the coalition was unprepared for the sudden collapse of authority in Baghdad. US forces on hand were insufficient to guard all vulnerable locations in the city. They fought a three-day battle with regime fighters next to the National Museum while looters were pillaging it.

The picture of what actually happened at the museum remains murky. One thing is clear: Hussein's regime itself was looting it and other cultural sites all through the 1990s. Many of the more-recent thefts may have been the work of professionals - maybe even an inside job by someone who had the keys. Thieves stole precious originals, like the Harp of Ur and the Vase of Uruk, leaving replicas behind.

But it's time to focus on recovery, not blame. The status of items museum staff hid away before the war must be clarified. FBI and military investigators in Baghdad are trying to piece together what happened. The US is offering rewards, and Iraqis are returning looted items at an increasing rate. Police around the world are on the lookout.

The British Museum and UNESCO Tuesday organized a London meeting to draft a recovery plan. The world must quickly help Iraqis financially and materially to reassemble the fragments of their shattered cultural past.

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