The Thieves of Baghdad

Everyone knows about the looting of Iraq's museums during last year's war. What almost no one knows is that most of the museums' holdings had been stolen and sold years before—and not by mobs of Iraqis off the street

One afternoon in April of last year, archaeologists from all over the world streamed into the plush new auditorium of the British Museum for a conference on the cultural reconstruction of Iraq. Donny George, the stout, graying Iraqi who had become the public face of Iraq's National Museum, gave a detailed report on the infamous looting of the museum three weeks earlier, following the fall of Baghdad. Some 170,000 pieces—a collection of antiquities that together documented the beginning of civilization—had been stolen, he told the group. George, then the director of research and publications in Iraq's Department of Antiquities and now the director of Iraq's museums, solemnly removed his glasses and scanned the audience. "This was a professional job," he said. "They knew what they were taking." He held up a red glass cutter. "These were people who were prepared."

Projected onto the wall above George was an image of what has become a symbol of the museum looting: the Warka Vase, a 5,200-year-old artifact unearthed by a team of German archaeologists in 1940 in the ruins of the ancient city of Warka, or Uruk, near Samawa, a small city 150 miles south of Baghdad. The vase, a yard tall and so slim that it appears almost haughty, was one of the museum's most important holdings; it is considered by scholars to be among the earliest examples of storytelling in art. On it four tiers of carvings, depicting workers, gods, animals, and plants, suggest the complex relationships of rule, wealth, and worship that shaped the world's first cities and the civilizations that thrived there.

Despite George's claims about the extent of the looting, the number of catalogued objects stolen from the museum that April was only about 3,000, not 170,000. The figure George cited at the conference in London was actually the total number of pieces in the museum's collection, the bulk of which had been hidden before coalition forces reached Baghdad. When I spoke with George, several months after the conference, he explained that he had been well aware of the true figure but felt he needed to obscure it: if he had announced that most of the museum's artifacts had been moved, looters would have searched for them. He also told me about the Warka Vase, which, astonishingly, had been returned.

George said he believed there were two types of looters that April: Baghdadis off the street, and professionals with inside information about the museum. He did not mention that, as it turns out, there had also been two phases of looting: the widely publicized one that began with the occupation of the city, and an earlier, secret one that ran throughout much of Saddam Hussein's rule and was in no small measure permitted by the regime. The earlier looting, as I discovered during a trip to Iraq last fall, was carried out so systematically, and on such a large scale, that it dwarfs the thefts that occurred after the fall of Baghdad. Moreover, the April looting may have occurred in part because it would provide cover for the prior thefts.

The National Museum occupies one third of a building behind a tall iron fence in a typically decrepit central Baghdad neighborhood; the rest contains offices for archaeologists and for officials of the Department of Antiquities, which oversees the museum. When I visited the museum, the floors of the galleries were still littered with broken glass from shattered cases. Near the headless body of a smashed sculpture the pedestal that had displayed the Warka Vase lay toppled on the floor.

In the offices and corridors young women congregated around the few desks that remained, passing the time with gossip, since their work as docents was no longer needed. It's hard to understand how they filled their days even before the looting. The museum had been closed to the public for the previous five years, and even before then Iraqis had to bribe security guards in order to enter the building.

Not only the public was barred from the museum. When I asked five archaeologists, each of whom had worked in the building for several years, what they had felt on seeing the looted galleries, they erupted in laughter. They had never been in any of the galleries. "The museum is a completely private place even to us," one of them, a man named Heider Farhan, explained. "To this date we have never walked through the museum. We work in the building. We are on the payroll. We have Ph.D.s in archaeology. But we have never been allowed to see any of what's inside." The reason they have always been given—first by the secret police who guarded the museum, and now by the officials who ran it before the occupation and are still in charge—is a single word: "security."

Each specialist in Iraqi archaeology I consulted while preparing for my trip had told me that if I wanted to understand the looting of artifacts that followed the fall of Baghdad, I would have to understand the dysfunctional nature of the museum. Employees whispered to one another in the corridors, falling silent whenever an official approached. Posters at the building's entrance protested the continued presence of two top officials: Nawala al-Mutawalli, the head of the museum, and her boss, Jaber al-Tikriti, its director general. (Last November these protests were finally heard, and al-Mutawalli and al-Tikriti were relieved of their duties.)

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Lauren Sandler is a New York-based journalist who writes about culture and politics. She traveled to Iraq on behalf of the Carr Foundation, a human-rights organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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