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.)

"The close of the museum was for safety," al-Mutawalli explained obliquely and repeatedly during the ten-minute interview she finally granted me, after near daily cancellations. Al-Mutawalli's face is broad and oval, and her wide oval glasses accentuated her hard stare. She was given charge of the museum in 2000; before that she was a noted cuneiform specialist at the University of Baghdad. She became legendary in the building for her difficult, neurotic behavior. "I call her 'Dr. No,'" one of her colleagues told me, "since all she can do is say 'no' to everything." Her name was paired with profanity in most conversations I had about her, but even more frequently it was paired with accusation. After the looting a set of master keys to the museum was discovered in a plundered storeroom. The keys belonged to al-Mutawalli, who museum employees say kept them in her office safe, which only she could open. She told me that no one else had access to the keys, but she could not explain their presence in the storeroom.

The only person at the museum who was even more widely disliked is Jaber al-Tikriti. An abrupt, unsmiling man with the face of a cartoon villain (all angles and moustache), he was hired by Saddam in 2001, in large part because of the tribal allegiance signified by his name (like Saddam, he is from Tikrit). Every day I was at the museum the anteroom outside his office filled with people who had arranged to speak with him; every day he refused to keep the appointments. "How can anything get done here, much less get solved?" an expatriate Iraqi archaeologist, back in the country to work for the coalition, asked me in exasperation.

The museum hasn't always been so troubled. When Iraq established its Department of Antiquities, in 1923, the government's intent was to increase public awareness of the country's rich heritage. By the 1960s, when the museum moved into its current quarters, it was on its way to amassing one of the greatest archaeological collections in the world.

Then came the ascendance of the Baath Party, and of Saddam Hussein. When Saddam seized power, in 1979, the party was already adept at manipulating Iraq's history for political ends. The Department of Antiquities was housed within the Ministry of Information.

If you were to say the word "looting" in Baghdad, everyone from taxi drivers to teachers would respond the same way, with one name: Arshad Yassin. A cousin of Saddam's, Arshad became the President's chief bodyguard in the early 1980s, a position in which he reached national prominence; his startlingly fair hair and blue eyes soon became a familiar sight on Iraqi television.

Early in his tenure Arshad realized that Iraq had an untapped resource. In addition to oil, fortunes in antiquities lay beneath the desert sand. He hired archaeology students who were eager to make money—and, like everyone else, terrified of the government—to slip into archaeological sites at night and dig for antiquities, which he sold on the international black market. He also paid art students to make forgeries based on the sculptures they had studied; these were oxidized and buried for a time to "age" them, and then sold as genuine. Still, these were small-time endeavors; Arshad knew that he could make far more money with the help of the Department of Antiquities. Several people at the museum told me he began colluding with the head of the department, Muyaad al-Damirjy, a longtime friend of Saddam's who was fired from this post in 1999, not for antiquities looting but for sexual scandals that were too egregious for even Saddam to tolerate. (The two reportedly remained close.) With Saddam's consent, Arshad and his associates widened the scope of their activities. Employees of the National Museum say that objects that were listed and numbered in the acquisition files began to vanish.

The 1980s were fruitful years for looting. A dam was slated for construction some 200 miles northeast of Baghdad, and excavation to save artifacts buried at the site began. As Zuhair Shakr, an archaeologist at the University of Baghdad for many years, told me, "It was the perfect time to start looting—they had the excuse" to remove anything that was found, to protect it from flooding. Whatever objects were uncovered never made their way to the National Museum; Shakr said that no one there paid any attention to the rescue effort. He also told me of a dramatic incident a few years later at the Assur regional museum, in northern Iraq. A Mercedes pulled up after hours one evening and disgorged a group of men bearing a letter from the regime, which said that they had been sent to move some antiquities from the museum. They gave the guards some tea, which was drugged. (This is a strange detail, since the letter would have given the men entry, but it was part of the story when others told it to me as well.) When the guards awoke, hours later, the collection had been plundered. A few years later the museum in Babylon was targeted. As the guards there were changing shifts, a group of men overpowered them and then ransacked the museum. "I believe Saddam Hussein did all of this through Arshad," Shakr told me.

Looting was rampant in museums throughout Iraq after the Gulf War, and Arshad became increasingly linked to theft in the public mind. Saddam, reportedly anxious about his own reputation once the looting attracted international attention, decided to distance himself from his cousin (who by then was also his brother-in-law: Saddam had rewarded Arshad's loyal service by giving him his sister as a wife). He dismissed Arshad as his bodyguard and forbade him to continue looting. But by that time Arshad did not need the regime's help—he retained the patina of officialdom, and had his own network of smugglers and lackeys. Students continued to loot archaeological sites and produce forgeries for him, and he maintained his ties to the Department of Antiquities. In the early 1990s Saddam learned of the continued looting and responded in a violent confrontation that left Arshad in the hospital. According to the doctor who treated him, "[Saddam] told him, 'I gave you all the money you could want, I gave you my sister, what else do I need to do to make you obey me?' and [Arshad] couldn't stop laughing in the hospital bed when he told me this. There was no secret about what he was doing—he had just become so powerful with it all he didn't care."

Arshad expanded his work force to include more than thirty bodyguards, but otherwise he continued much as before. One of his former drivers, who worked for him until just before the Iraq War, told me that he had led flotillas of trucks full of unmarked boxes around Baghdad for years. Museum employees continued to notice empty slots and inconsistencies in numbering. "We all believed the stuff was taken by Arshad," Heider Farhan told me. "Nobody outside his people could know what was going on. But we knew one thing: that Nawala [al-Mutawalli] worked with Arshad from the beginning of her time at the museum."

Donny George, who has known al-Mutawalli since they were students together and was among her detractors at the museum, told me he doubted this allegation. "Despite the bad relations between me and Nawala in the past two years, I would never believe she would have anything to do with the looters," he said. "While I would say she's stupid, and she can't do her job in a good way, she would never be with the looters." Still, he admitted, "it's true we all had to do things we would never want to do, just to keep our places in the department, to keep [the regime] from destroying everything we had worked for." George wouldn't say exactly what he did or whether he got anything in return. But most museum employees believe that al-Mutawalli was paid six million dinars—about $2,500, at a time when doctors made just a few dollars a month—for cooperating with the regime during the months before last year's war.

Farhan described a series of incidents that he believed pointed to long-term complicity on al-Mutawalli's part. One day several years ago, while he was digging at a site near Nasiriya, in southern Iraq, Farhan excavated a vase that proved on examination to be a forgery. Within days he discovered another forged object buried in the dirt. This happened six times, always with Saddam's ubiquitous secret police nearby. Farhan realized that someone had been digging at the site, stealing objects, and replacing them with forgeries, all under the eyes of the secret police. Understanding that he risked punishment, perhaps even execution, Farhan nonetheless took his findings to the museum. Al-Mutawalli and al-Tikriti insulted him, dismissed his assessment, and reassigned him to the computer room, forbidding him to visit any archaeological sites. The man who replaced him discovered and reported forgeries as well, as did the two archaeologists who followed him. Al-Mutawalli and al-Tikriti fired each one for coming forward.

After the April looting, as he waded through heaps of office papers strewn feet deep across the museum's floors, Farhan came across some government documents, which he showed me. The papers detailed the museum's acquisition of numerous antiquities that had never been catalogued; they also contained tracking information for museum objects that had left the country, but included no mention of their receipt by any institution abroad. One of Farhan's friends, another archaeologist at the museum, had signed the documents; Farhan learned that he had done so under threat. "Muyaad [al-Damirjy], Jaber [al-Tikriti], all of them—they were little Saddams who were just carrying out Saddam's will," Farhan told me with a disgusted snort.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion it was Saddam's crony al-Damirjy, not al-Tikriti, who was charged with evacuating the museum's contents. The employees were suspicious, but they were soon assured that everything had been moved to a safe location. So when the war came, they reasonably expected that this time there would be nothing to loot—certainly nothing as significant and valuable as the Warka Vase. In hindsight Farhan and others came to believe that the various events added up. "I believe the reason so much—the antiquities, the Warka Vase—was left behind was to cover up for other things the government had looted all these years," Farhan told me. "Even if a committee investigates, it isn't going to investigate which pieces were looted after the war and which were looted in the eighties and nineties. It would be impossible."

I was told that only a few top museum officials, including al-Mutawalli and al-Tikriti, know where al-Damirjy hid the objects he moved—and that they had sworn on the Koran never to reveal their location. (As a Christian, Donny George cannot swear on the Koran, and for this reason, he says, he was not trusted with the information.) I spoke with al-Damirjy while I was in Baghdad, but throughout our interview he answered my questions with a belly laugh and the repeated assurance (usually irrelevant to the question) "Don't worry, everything is safe." He shoved his hands into the side pockets of his cargo vest and firmly shook his head when I asked him if he thought Arshad had anything to do with the recent looting. "Ah, you want to know about this big conspiracy behind the looting of the Warka Vase," he said condescendingly. Moments later, once my pen was capped and my notebook tucked away in my bag, he grinned widely, leaned in close, and in a conspiratorial whisper said, "When they arrest Arshad, maybe we'll know, no?" He actually winked.

"It was always a dream of mine to go to the museum," Emad Muhammad told me. My translator had seen Muhammad's name scrawled next to the entry "Warka Vase" in a ledger of looted and returned objects at the National Museum. The accompanying address led me to Muhammad's uncle's house, and his aunt arranged a meeting. Muhammad, twenty-three, is a former accounting student and has served in the Iraqi army. Throughout his life the museum had been entirely closed to the public or accessible only by paying bribes that he could not afford.

Muhammad was living with his family in a lower-middle-class suburb of Baghdad, but during the war the family stayed with relatives farther outside the city. A friend of his had taken refuge there as well. On April 9 they heard that it was safe to return to Baghdad. Muhammad had a car, a red Volkswagen, and agreed to take his friend to check on his apartment, which is close to the museum. Along with Muhammad's brother, Tahir, and a cousin, Luay, they drove into the city. As they passed the museum, they saw swarms of people entering the building while U.S. soldiers in a couple of nearby tanks passively surveyed the scene. After dropping off Muhammad's friend, they decided to go back and find out what was happening. They joined the mob. "There were plenty, plenty of things in the galleries," Luay told me, grinning. "It didn't look like anything had been packed up at all."

Inside, the three men split up. Muhammad went upstairs to the Sumerian galleries, Tahir entered the Assyrian galleries, and Luay ventured downstairs into the storerooms.

Muhammad's eye was caught by a vase on a pedestal—the Warka Vase. As he was reading the accompanying card, he told me, a man emerged from the crowd, pushed Muhammad to one side, and hurriedly tried to lift the vase. In his rush he dropped it, and the upper portion broke into several pieces. Muhammad ordered the man to step away. He carefully gathered up the pieces and took them out to the trunk of his Volkswagen; then he went back inside. After a few more hours of looting, the men drove the car, now packed with artifacts, to Muhammad's home. They stashed the artifacts under the settees in the living room, borrowed a gun, and went on twenty-four-hour watch.

Muhammad's mother, Fawziya, and his sister, Zainab, returned a few days later. Fawziya was horrified when she entered the living room. "What is this!" she cried, even before ascertaining that her sons and her home were safe. "This," Muhammad replied, "is worth more than one hundred of the house we live in." "I was in complete shock," Fawziya told me, her round, smiling face turning to stone at the memory. "I thought my sons were criminals. I said, 'Take them out of my house.'" Muhammad moved the collection into his bedroom, where he wrapped the vase in an old blanket and hid it under the bed. "I knew at night I was sleeping on top of a million dollars," he told me. But he knew only a small part of the truth. He had no idea that newspapers around the world were publishing photographs of the vase, and that before the month was out the museum's spokesman would be describing its loss to hundreds of archaeologists and reporters at an international conference. He had no idea of the importance and true value of the object over which he slumbered every night.

For twenty days Muhammad, Tahir, and Luay tried to come up with a plan to fence their goods. For twenty days Fawziya hardly slept. For twenty days Zainab refused to speak, in protest. Finally Fawziya called a family meeting. Zainab said she would kill herself if Muhammad and the others didn't return the antiquities to the museum. They immediately agreed to do so, and soon Muhammad and Tahir put the vase and the other stolen objects into the Volkswagen and drove them back to the museum. The vase is being repaired by conservators from Italy, and remains at the museum today.

In the meantime, the sort of activity that emptied the National Museum has been visited on some of its perpetrators. While in Iraq I saw a number of wealthy homes that had been looted after the war. Outside one, etched in a marble bar overlooking a swimming pool heaped with filth, were the initials A.Y. This was where Arshad Yassin lived and ran his operations before he fled Baghdad, last year. The walls were black with soot, many stripped down to studs and electrical wires; the plumbing had been ripped away; the rooms stank of urine. The only remnant of Arshad's vast holdings of art and antiquities was a headless marble statue, presumably too heavy for looters to bother with—now a ghostly roommate to the squatters who had taken up residence in the ruins.