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Did U.S. Antiques Collectors Have Plans to Loot Iraq Themselves? International Outrage Continues at U.S. Failure to Protect the Famous National Museum or Baghdad’s National Library and Archives

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After international outrage at the failure of U.S. troops to protect hospitals and the looting of the famous National Museum, Baghdad’s National Library and Archives went up in flames yesterday. Almost all of the contents of the library are destroyed.

British war correspondent Robert Fisk reports the library was a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq. He saw pages blowing in the wind of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad. Fisk also saw the Qur’anic library burning nearby, which includes one of the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.

He rushed to the offices of the Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. He gave the map location and said it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene.

Meanwhile, nine British archaeologists published a letter in the London Guardian yesterday, charging that private collectors are persuading the Pentagon to relax legislation that protects Iraq’s heritage by prevention of sales abroad. The Guardian reports Pentagon officials are denying accusations that the U.S. government is succumbing to pressure from private collectors to allow plundered Iraqi treasures to be traded on the open market.

Months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a coalition of wealthy American antiquities collectors met with Defense and State Department officials to discuss the fate of the country’s ancient artifacts. Among other things, they urged the Bush administration to weaken Iraq’s strict antiquities laws to make it easier for U.S. dealers to export Iraqi artifacts out of Iraq.

The main group behind this move was the recently formed American Council for Cultural Policy. The group’s treasurer, William Pearlstein, described Iraq’s laws as “retentionist.”

But well-established archaeological groups have strongly criticized these efforts. The director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research said, “Iraqi antiquities legislation protects Iraq. The last thing one needs is some group of dealer-connected Americans interfering. Any change to those laws would be absolutely monstrous.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After international outrage at the failure of U.S. troops to protect hospitals and the looting of the famous National Museum, Baghdad’s National Library and Archives went up in flames yesterday. Almost all the contents of the library are destroyed.

British war correspondent Robert Fisk reports the library was a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq. He saw pages blowing in the wind of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad. Fisk also saw the Qur’anic library burning nearby, which includes one of the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.

He rushed to the offices of the Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. He gave the map location and said it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene.

Meanwhile, nine British archaeologists published a letter in the London Guardian, charging that private collectors are persuading the Pentagon to relax legislation that protects Iraq’s heritage by prevention of sales abroad. The Guardian reports Pentagon officials are denying accusations that the U.S. government is succumbing to pressure from private collectors to allow plundered Iraqi treasures to be traded on the open market.

Months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a coalition of wealthy American antiquities collectors met with Defense and State Department officials to discuss the fate of the country’s ancient artifacts. Among other things, they urged the Bush administration to weaken Iraq’s strict antiquities laws. The main group behind this move was the recently formed American Council for Cultural Policy, or ACCP. The group’s treasurer, William Pearlstein, described Iraq’s laws as, quote, “retentionist.” But well-established archaeological groups have strongly criticized these efforts.

We’re joined right now by Andrew Lawler, who is the archaeology correspondent for Science magazine.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Andrew Lawler, welcome.

ANDREW LAWLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t you lay out what this conflict is about? But first, your reaction as you saw and read about the plundering of the National Museum and now the national archives of Iraq going up in flames?

ANDREW LAWLER: It’s been quite emotional. I’ve been to Iraq twice in the past two years and have spent a good deal of time both at the National Museum as well as at archaeological sites in Iraq. In the past two years, Iraq has begun to open back up to foreign archaeologists, and they have been holding conferences and encouraging people to come back, researchers to come back, after 10 years of sanctions and war, to start digging again and to start connecting back with the Iraqi antiquities establishment, which is really quite good. It’s the best Middle Eastern archaeological service that there is. So, the idea that this museum would be destroyed was particularly appalling, given that, since 1970, everything that is dug up in Iraq, every legal excavation, everything has to go to this museum. So there was untold tens of thousands, as much as maybe 200,000 objects, most of which were probably not well catalogued, a lot of which had not been studied, and a lot of objects such as clay tablets, which had never been deciphered. So, the loss is absolutely incalculable. It’s certainly comparable to the burning of the Library at Alexandria, the sack of Constantinople or the conquistador invasions of the Inca and Aztec cultures.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the ACCP?

ANDREW LAWLER: Well, I take a little bit of issue, the way you described it in the intro, because, you know, this group, when they met with the Pentagon, they did not, as far as I know, actually say, “We want you to somehow change the laws of Iraq to make them less retentionist.” Actually, in the meeting itself, there were archaeologists there who had a common purpose with this group, and that was to ensure that these important archaeological sites and heritage sites, such as the museum, were not bombed. That was number one.

Number two was to remind the Pentagon and the State Department what happened after the first Gulf War. After the first Gulf War, there was chaos. And in places like Basra, Nasiriyah and other cities, mobs attacked the museums, which are seen as the center of government power. They were seen as government buildings, and therefore associated with Saddam Hussein, and therefore people didn’t have a lot of respect for them. These museums were looted. About 4,000 objects were stolen in the chaos, and very few were recovered. Now, in the aftermath of that, people in Iraq and scholars outside of Iraq said, “Never again. We can never allow this kind of chaos to happen again.” And this is what was discussed at the meetings, both at the State Department and at the Pentagon in January.

Now, these people for the American Council for Cultural Policy, they tend to have better political contacts than the archaeologists do, and they manage to get meetings with senior people. And together with the archaeologists, they went in a kind of a common front to try and address these issues. However, some archaeologists are extremely concerned about this group or more about the power of curators and collectors, which now certainly comes under the spotlight, given what has happened in Iraq, where you have hundreds of thousands of objects floating around. And from what I’ve heard in the past 24 hours, already objects are surfacing in Paris, in Tehran and in other cities, which may have come from the National Museum and other sites in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in the Sunday Herald by Liam McDougall called “U.S. Accused of Plans to Loot Iraqi Antiquities.” And it talks about the ACCP, the American Council for Cultural Policy, meeting with Defense and State Department officials, and then quotes professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, a leading Cambridge archaeologist, director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, saying, “Iraqi antiquities legislation protects Iraq. The last thing one needs is some group of dealer-connected Americans interfering. Any change to those laws would be absolutely monstrous,” and then also talks about a wave of protests coming from the Archaeological Institute of America, the AIA, which says any weakening of Iraq’s strict antiquities laws would be disastrous. And it quotes the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Patty —

ANDREW LAWLER: Gerstenblith, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — Gerstenblith, saying the ACCP’s agenda is to encourage the collecting of antiquities through weakening the laws of archaeologically rich nations and eliminate national ownership of antiquities to allow for easier export.

ANDREW LAWLER: Well, in part, this is yesterday’s story, because the publicity surrounding the formation of this group, I think, has concerned the Pentagon and State Department, so I think that they are aware of this issue, and the archaeologists have made their voice heard. The story today is that hundreds of thousands of objects, that are the common cultural heritage of all of us — we’re talking about civilizations which — the first civilizations, the first writing, the first tablets. This concerns everyone, not just Iraqis who are concerned with their past. These objects are now going to be out in the art market. And the question is: What can be done to be sure that curators and collectors see these as toxic, in other words, see these as items which they should not touch? And if that is the case, there is a possibility that some of these could be retrieved.

Now, I just talked to the State Department yesterday, and there’s some archaeologists saying, “What needs to be done now is Iraqis immediately need to be told, 'If you bring back any of these items, we will take them back. We will not charge you with any crime, and we will provide you with some small amount of money.'” The State Department, however, said that in order for them to spend money on these Iraqi antiquities, they’d have to get congressional approval, which will take a lot of time and which might be denied by Congress.

So, it’s a very terrible situation. I think right now the question is: Can all these pieces work together? Can the State Department, the archaeological community, the curators and the private collectors of the world — can they sit down and start talking, along with Interpol, and try and find a way to prevent these objects from leaving Iraq, number one, and, number two, to find a way to get back what’s in Iraq immediately to the museum and to secure them?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Andrew Lawler, for joining us. Andrew Lawler has done a piece in Science magazine on the antiquities of Iraq, the cradle of civilization, as we continue to follow this story. You are listening to Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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