Inside Iraq’s National Museum

A reporter on the scene in Baghdad describes how and why the looting happened.

U.S. Army captain Jason Conroy in front of the museum.


A white marble statue of Poseidon had been chopped up, its torso and upper legs thrown to the floor and its head gone. A life-size stone statue from Hatra, brought to the museum three weeks before for safekeeping, had lost its head and its left arm to the looters’ saw. The Warka Vase, a 5,000-year-old cup in carved alabaster that was too fragile to move to storage, had disappeared.

Though far less was stolen than museum officials first led the world to believe, the looting of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities in the 48 hours after Saddam Hussein’s downfall was a cultural atrocity. Storerooms were vandalized and pillaged, decades of research documents burned, ceramics and cuneiform tablets smashed and trampled to pieces. When he saw the damage, said the museum’s research director, Donny George, “it felt like I was bleeding, like I had a deep cut in my heart.”

During a week in May in Baghdad, I interviewed about 30 people concerning the looting: Iraqi museum officials, the U.S. troops accused of failing to protect the museum, members of the U.S. team investigating the thefts, foreign archeologists who led international protests against the U.S. role, and more than a dozen people who lived in the neighborhood and who witnessed the looting and the combat that preceded it.

The most striking fact to emerge from dicussions with those living or working around the museum is that, in the days before and during the looting, they saw the museum being turned into a major military defensive position by Iraqi forces.

In plain violation of the Hague Convention of 1954, Iraqi fighters occupied the museum complex and used it as a combat position for at least three days after museum staff had fled. Neighborhood residents corroborated the charges made by American forces that the Americans had come under attack from inside the museum grounds and that fighting in the area was heavy. Even as they criticized the Americans for not protecting their national treasures, Iraqi witnesses to the looting said that Saddam Hussein’s forces had turned the museum into a small arsenal.

“The Ba’athists were in there, shooting at the Americans. Many people saw it,” said Jabar al-Azawi, referring to members of Saddam Hussein’s party. An elderly man wearing a gray robe, he offered me a cold drink in his garden on a quiet street around the corner from the museum. He said that the fighting was so intense that everyone on the block except him fled. “I loved the museum, and I blame the Americans and the British forces because they didn’t stop the looting,” he said.

U.S. forces have cited armed resistance from inside the complex as the main reason they could not seal off the museum and prevent the looting. In the end, they protected it only after they had defeated the last remnants of Saddam’s forces in the area.

The looting began on Thursday, April 10, and lasted two days, as the battle between U.S. and Iraqi forces raged through the city.

Ibrahim Taha and his colleague were guarding the office of the bus company where they worked when they saw people rushing into the museum, a few doors down. Taha followed them in and came to a small concrete building at the back of the museum, where he saw something that surprised him: weapons. Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were propped against the wall, more guns were hanging from hooks, and there were boxes of ammunition on the floor. The Iraqi fighters who had brought this arsenal had fled, and looters were busily helping themselves to the weapons.

“I didn’t take one because I already had a Kalashnikov,” said Taha, a compact, solidly built man. Speaking through an interpreter, he told me that a few yards from the weapons cache was a smashed window in the back wall of the museum’s main building, through which looters had entered. Taha saw looters rushing out of the building, some holding clay pots and heavy boxes.

“I heard people saying to them, ’Stop, you are destroying our heritage, you are stealing what belongs to the Iraqi people.’ But no one listened to them. You would have had to shoot them to stop them,” said Taha.

Museum officials and American investigators are finding that the number of missing artifacts is vastly lower than first reported. Instead of 170,000 artifacts missing, museum officials say privately, the number will probably be 3,000 to 5,000. Investigations will take months more, and the exact number may never be known, but many famous artifacts thought to have been stolen are now known to be safe, including the ivory cup sculpted with the face of a woman known as the Mona Lisa of Nimrud and the Sippar library of Babylonian tablets. Museum officials said these pieces had been taken to storage, although they will not reveal precisely where they are.

About a week before American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Iraqi forces dug three trenches in the museum’s front lawn and covered them with corrugated metal and earth. Partly camouflaged by the overgrown lawn, these trenches—underground bunkers, the Americans called them—were later used to store weapons and launch attacks on U.S. tanks on the avenue in front of the museum.

Identical to combat pits dug in parks, vacant lots, and soccer fields all over Baghdad, the trenches in front of the museum are about five feet deep and seven feet long—large enough to accommodate three or four people lying down with weapons. American forces found an unexploded grenade in one of the trenches. There were at least five sandbag emplacements on the museum grounds and on the sidewalk in front. I asked museum director Nawala al-Mutawili what the trenches were for. “They were dug long ago,” she said, declining to elaborate.

Elsewhere in the museum complex, snipers fired at American forces from at least three locations: a storage room in the main building and the roofs of two other museum buildings. Weapons or ammunition were found later at all three spots.

A fourth building in the rear of the museum was used as an arsenal and reloading station, with easy access to an avenue that saw some of the heaviest fighting in Baghdad. The door that connected that building to the avenue was, in fact, the door through which most of the looters entered the museum.

The use of the museum as a military position by Iraqi forces literally opened the door to its looting. “It was that side door,” said Khalil Ibrahim, who lives nearby. “All the fighting was over there, and that’s where the thieves were carrying out things from the museum.”

On Tuesday, April 8, as American tanks pushed into central Baghdad, people living in the bustling Al Alawi neighborhood around the museum found themselves for the first time in the middle of war. American tanks occupied a long intersection on the south side of the neighborhood, while paramilitary fedayeen and Republican Guards blasted them with rocket-propelled grenades and submachine-gun fire from alleys, balconies, and behind buildings. From the roofs, Iraqis fired anti-aircraft guns at American tanks, which fired back.

On the west side of this key intersection is Baghdad’s central train station. The museum is on the north side. Controlling access routes to two bridges over the Tigris and points north of Baghdad, this junction was crucial for the Americans to capture and just as crucial for the remnants of Saddam’s forces to hold. The museum was in the middle of one of the city’s main military objectives.

Mohsun Abbas, an archeologist, was the only staff member who stayed on the museum grounds during all the combat and looting that followed. “I have never seen a battle like this, an
d I was in the war with Iran,” he said. With his two sons and a family friend, Abbas stayed in their cottage behind the museum while the bombs fell. Fearing for their lives, they ventured out rarely.

The two highest-ranking officials inside the museum as the battle began were National Organization of Iraqi Antiquities director Jaber Khalil and research director George. They had been in the museum for three days. But now the battle was upon them. Before noon, they told me later, Khalil came to George and told him that Iraqi fighters were climbing over the fences into the museum grounds. They left at once, along with the few other remaining employees in the museum except Abbas.

Khalil and George, an Iraqi archeologist whose affable manner and impeccable English have made him the museum’s public face, couldn’t stop the fighters from invading the -museum, but they thought its contents would be safe. They had emptied the galleries of all portable objects and locked them away in storage rooms, except for about a hundred pieces too fragile or too heavy to move. The museum staff had placed sandbags and foam rubber around those heavy stone sculptures to cushion the impact if they fell. Thousands of other objects had been taken to off-site locations: a bomb shelter in west Baghdad and the basement of the Central Bank, where the museum had been storing especially valuable items for at least three years.

Three U.S. Army platoons, with four tanks and 16 soldiers each, rolled into the immediate vicinity of the museum that day under heavy fire. It was a big force, attesting to the importance of the junction and the strength of Iraqi resistance. The commander of the operation was Captain Jason Conroy.

I asked Conroy why his troops didn’t make more of an effort to guard what he must have known would be a tempting target for looters.

“That building was being used as a defensive position. They were fighting out of it. It wasn’t like you came here and there was no enemy. The area was completely saturated by enemy positions, and they weren’t abiding by the rules we were abiding by,” he said. An engaging, articulate man, Conroy seemed more bewildered than angry at the charges that his troops could have stopped the plunder. “I mean, you’re talking about one little building. Yes, it’s an important building, but you have to think back to what point we were at. We were just moving into Baghdad, and just to get to this area was a major undertaking.”

According to Conroy, U.S. forces came under rocket-propelled grenade fire from the roof of the Children’s Museum, which is inside the antiquities museum complex, and from the roof of the museum’s library annex. A gaping hole in the Children’s Museum shows where a U.S. tank projectile hit, and there were bloodstains on a ladder where a wounded Iraqi sniper had climbed down. Boxes of live grenades were later found on the roof of the Children’s Museum and on the library roof.

Behind the battle lines, looting was well under way by Thursday, April 10. According to Abbas, a group of seven men smashed open the museum’s glass front door and went inside. Most of the shelves were empty, but there were still some choice works, like the Warka Vase, a copper bull from the Tell Ubaid site, and a 4,400-year-old diorite statue of an early Babylonian king.

Abbas told me that he had taken a white cloth and walked out to an American tank to ask for help guarding the museum. His request was made to the American troops’ Arabic translator. Neither Conroy nor any of his men I interviewed remembered hearing anything about it.

When Abbas walked back to the museum, he said, he realized that looters had swept in through a back entrance, near the weapons cache that Taha saw. Armed with assault rifles and knives, this mob directed its fury at the administrative offices before hitting the galleries. They ransacked desks, opened safes with crowbars, and emptied file cabinets. One of them found money. A month’s payroll of about $14,000 was inside a looted safe, according to someone close to the investigation.

By Saturday, April 12, other employees began returning to the museum and chased out some of the looters. Abbas put up a large sign in the entrance saying in Arabic: “The American army is in control of the museum. Those who enter will be killed.” It was a lie, of course, but it helped. They were able to block the doors and hold looters at bay.

George and Khalil, meanwhile, were getting nowhere in their efforts to gain U.S. military protection for the museum, they said later. On Sunday, April 13, they ventured out of their homes and went to the Palestine Hotel, where there was a U.S. command post, and got what they thought was a commitment from a U.S. Marine colonel to get troops to secure the building. None came. By then, the marines had largely withdrawn from the west side of the Tigris, where the museum was located, and the U.S. Army had taken over all operations in that area.

Conroy said his forces took sporadic fire for four more days, until Tuesday, April 15, when they withdrew to refuel. The next day, with news of looting all over the world’s media, he finally received orders to return and “secure” the museum, but by then the battle was over and the pillage had ended. They returned expecting to find Iraqi armed defenders and instead found only reporters. Conroy told me that he had no idea the museum had been looted. He, George, and Khalil inspected the museum for booby traps, finding none but coming across discarded Republican Guard uniforms.

At least 42 artifacts disappeared from the main galleries; 7 have since been seized or returned by repentant looters, officials said. Still missing is the Basetki statue, a bronze colossus dating from about 2300 b.c., which looters dragged across the floor and down a flight of stairs, breaking each marble step as they went. When the looters found the Golden Harp of Ur, they cut off the gold sheaths on its uprights with a knife, probably with the intention of melting down the gold. (The harp’s gold-covered bull’s head had already been sent to storage and is safe.) They hacked apart three Roman-era marble sculptures and took the heads, and wrenched nine cuneiform clay tablets from their steel braces on a wall. Ceramic shards and shattered marble lay strewn across the floor.

Damage was even greater in the storage rooms. Looters broke into one of the five rooms and entered two others without force. One of those, on the first floor, suffered particularly heavy vandalism and the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small objects.

That room was connected to another room on the second floor by a spiral staircase. And in the upstairs room there was evidence of an Iraqi sniper position: an AK-47 magazine, an empty ammunition box, pieces of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a dud grenade, and a smashed-out window facing the intersection. The sniper fired while lying among ancient treasures. Holes in the wall showed where American bullets had hit.

The most obvious explanation for how the looters entered those two connected storage rooms was that they followed the sniper in. The door was unforced, meaning the sniper either had the key or it had been left unlocked.

Looters also bashed out the cinder blocks covering the back entrance to a basement storage area. There was no electricity, so the looters lit papers to use as a torch and went through the area picking out the most valuable and portable items.

“In the storerooms, it seems the looters had some knowledge about where to find the best things. These people were prepared,” said George. He said there was no evidence that museum employees were involved, but he couldn’t explain why the doors weren’t forced.

“Clearly there was a group of people who went through the museum filling in a list of things to steal,” said U.S. Marine Corps colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who until late May led the 13-man U.S. team investigating
the looting. “Th
person who looted that storage magazine knew just what he wanted. He could find it in the dark.”

Made up mostly of U.S. Customs art-theft experts, the American team has been billeted inside the museum complex since late April. The team officially has the cooperation of museum staff, though relations are occasionally prickly, as when the U.S. team asked to fingerprint museum employees. The Americans resent the charge that they could have prevented the looting, and museum officials are incensed by insinuations that their staff allowed or even profited from it.

“The museum is in armadillo mode. They’re paranoid and terrified that they’re going to get blamed for what happened,” said McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago archeologist who has worked in Iraq since 1964 and returned to Baghdad a few weeks after Saddam’s fall. “The museum people did exactly what they should do. They put all the material they could in storage and locked it up. They assumed the Americans wouldn’t bomb it, which they didn’t, but then they assumed the Americans would protect it from looters.”

“I think they should have guarded it, whatever it took,” said Major Eric Holliday, who is in charge of protecting cultural sites in northern Iraq. “If there was a war in Washington, would we have protected the Smithsonian? Yeah, we would have, no matter what.”

Investigators are now wondering why the looters did not make off with more than they did. One neighborhood resident said he had heard that the first group of looters kept later groups at bay, at gunpoint, while the first group took the choicest objects. Taha suggested that the crowds lost interest in the artifacts when they found the weapons. In lawless Baghdad, a Kalashnikov is a hotter property than a statuette.

Under a no-questions-asked amnesty program, looters have returned a few hundred objects, including the Warka Vase. The largest single recovery of items, however, came from a pickup truck headed for the Iranian border. When armed Iraqi guards stopped the truck and searched it, they found an aluminum box, similar to those used in the museum’s vaults, containing some 450 objects, including ancient cylinder seals, small tablets, and statuettes. When the haul was returned to the museum, however, about 100 of the objects were found to be modern copies.

The hugely exaggerated claims about the extent of the plunder diverted attention from the looting of ancient sites all over Iraq, a genuine cultural catastrophe, said archeologists. Unlike the museum objects, artifacts wrenched from the ground are impossible to identify or track and can easily be given phony provenances to disguise their origins. The market for Mesopotamian antiquities is likely to see a huge influx of supply over the next few years as fresh loot comes onto the market. “Anything that the U.S. military isn’t sitting on is being destroyed,” said Gibson. “The collectors who buy this stuff are going to be happy.”

International efforts are focusing on publishing lists and photographs of missing items supplied by the museum. With global recovery efforts well advanced, museum officials say that reassembling the museum collection will be a long but achievable task. The lifting of U.N. sanctions, which barred foreign funding for cultural endeavors, will help immensely, officials say.

Interpol has launched a worldwide hunt for plundered treasures. The International Council of Museums has created an emergency list of objects that are likely to be offered for sale illegally. The “ICOM Red List” will be published in English, French, and Arabic and made available on the Web for the use of customs and police officers, art dealers, and the public.

Retired Italian ambassador Piero Cordone, the U.S-led coalition’s adviser on cultural affairs, said that he hoped at least part of the museum would be open by September. On exhibition, for the first time since the late 1980s, will be the Assyrian treasure of Nimrud—600 pieces of gold jewelry, precious stones, and other objects excavated from a royal burial pit of the ninth century b.c. The treasure was recently discovered intact in sealed boxes in a vault in the flooded basement of the Iraqi National Bank.

“We have lost a lot of material. We have lost some masterpieces,” said George. “But the museum still has its basic collection, and I believe we can go back to work.”

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