U.S. government officials and archaeologists are suspicious that widespread looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad may have been orchestrated by individuals or organizations eager to sell the assets on the antiquities market. The looting, which destroyed many of the nearly 200,000 priceless treasures in the museum's collection, came despite frantic attempts by U.S. archaeologists to intervene to ensure the museum was safe.
Scholars are calling the pilfering of the museum the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history. "This is like destroying all the museums on the Washington Mall, all at once," says Eleanor Robson, an Assyriologist at the University of Oxford, U.K. "It's an unparalleled collection of the world's earliest and greatest civilizations." The objects--clay tablets, statues, jewelry, manuscripts--represented 10,000 years of human culture.
The failure of U.S. troops to post guards stemmed from a stunning breakdown in the chain of the U.S. Central Command. As late as the first day of looting on 10 April, senior military officials called for the site to be secured, but that directive was ignored. Desperate calls from U.S. archaeologists prompted a senior Air Force official to contact the coalition's Air Operations Command when the looting began, that official said. The request to secure the museum was forwarded to U.S. Central Command and to the Army liaison at Air Operations Command. The Air Force official was told the request was "taken seriously." But the looting continued, and spread. The National Library, with thousands of precious manuscripts, was reported to be in flames.
One U.S. Army source in Iraq said the museum looting "resembles a professional bank robbery." He and others speculate the efforts were coordinated and the looters hope to sell the antiquities on the black market.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said 14 April the museum would be secured. But so far, that has not occurred. Donny George, research director for the Iraq State Board of Antiquities, said 15 April that he has begged in vain for the U.S. military to post guards at the site, which he says is still threatened by looters.