Iraq Antiquities Revisited

Jeffrey Schuster

On Saturday, April 12, 2003, three days after the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad had been pulled down to cheering Iraqis, the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum began to appear both in print and on broadcast news outlets around the world. Over Saturday and Sunday and continuing into the next week it would be the dominant news story coming out of Iraq.

That Saturday, in his lead paragraph for the Associated Press, Hamza Hendawi wrote that the Iraq National Museum had been emptied and all that remained was broken pottery and shattered display cases. The BBC News online world edition reported that looters had removed thousands of pieces from the museum. And John F. Burns, writing for the New York Times, claimed that the museum had been looted over a period of 48 hours and that they had taken away “at least 50,000” artifacts. Later that evening Burns would rewrite his lead. Instead of 50,000 artifacts being carried away by looters, he inserted, “with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.”

By the end of the day on Saturday, April 12, then, the major outlines of the story had been set by the journalists in Baghdad. According to the officials who had been located and interviewed on the museum grounds, most if not all of the collection had been removed by looting Iraqis. Again, according to a handful of Iraqis on the grounds, the American forces, who could have prevented this catastrophe, did nothing. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul McGeough, who linked the museum story to his wider anti-war stance, did not hesitate to cast the first stone. “After witnessing three weeks of attacks on Baghdad and almost a week of looting - especially of the Iraq National Museum,” he writes, “questions about where the criminality lies become blurred.”

The story that emerged on Saturday and Sunday was that the Americans had carelessly looked on as Iraqis looted and ransacked and destroyed and pillaged their and our cultural heritage. In the heat of the press mania, no analogy was too extreme: Mongols. Vandals. Barbarians. These terms were not applied, however, to the Iraqis who actually entered the museum and looted it. In a peculiar transformation possible only by an international press that was already disposed to distrust the American government, these epithets were directed at the American military in particular and at Americans in general.

But what really happened at the museum? Over the next two months, surfacing in bits and pieces, the truth slowly emerged. First of all, the original figure for the total number of pieces in the collection given by most journalists was 170,000. This number, we later learned, was for inventory purposes. An individual inventory number could represent a single piece or several pieces together, as in a necklace or broken pottery shard. The total number of “pieces” was, in fact, around 500,000. Next, we now know that, of those 500,000 pieces, only around 10,000 were stolen. The majority of the collection had been removed before the war to secure vaults in the main bank in Baghdad or had been hidden and secured inside the museum itself. A sizeable portion of the collection, in fact, had been removed prior to the war by a group of five concerned employees of the museum who had made a pact not to reveal the secret locations of the items. Later, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the US Marine officer in charge of the team of investigators that arrived on April 20 and begin work on April 22, would earn the trust of this group and was then allowed to check on the safety of the items.

The story of the alleged looting of the entire collection of the Iraqi National Museum is far different from the original versions presented by the foreign correspondents. The story begins on Tuesday morning, April 8, when three Iraqi museum officials, who had been preparing to live in the museum for the duration, suddenly noticed that Fedayeen Saddam were jumping into the large bunkers that had been cut into the yard in front of the museum and firing upon Americans troops entering the neighborhood. Donny George would later say that he then knew right then that it would be too dangerous for them to stay in the museum.

“Our heritage is finished”

Back on the morning of Tuesday, April 8, 2003, one day before the statue of Saddam Hussein came down, Donny George, research director of the State Board of Antiquities, Jaber Khalil, chair of the same organization, and Nawala al-Mutawalli, the museum director, decided that, for reasons of personal safety, it was no longer possible to stay inside the Iraq National Museum. Before the war began, three large bunkers had been cut into the lawn in front of the museum and reinforced with sandbags and sheets of corrugated metal. Earlier that morning the sounds of explosions had grown closer and Iraqi military and Fedayeen jumped into the bunkers on the grounds of the museum and began firing upon the American troops entering the neighborhood. At this point, after consulting with his colleagues, Donny George locked the front doors and the back doors to the main museum building and then the three of them climbed into a waiting car and drove away, leaving behind one man who actually lived on the premises.

The next day, Wednesday, April 9, Mohammed Al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information and familiarly known as Baghdad Bob, failed to show up for work, a clear signal that the Ba’athist regime was starting to crumble. Later in the afternoon, people all around the world watched in stunned disbelief as Iraqis cheered and clapped as the American soldiers used a tank to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein.

On Thursday, April 10, Iraqis entered the museum, first going through the administrative offices and grabbing anything they could and destroying what they didn’t want to carry off. Donny George would later note that his office chair had been broken and dragged across the room. Files had been emptied. Anything of value in the administrative offices, like computers and air conditioners, was removed by the looters.

The next day Raid Abdul Ridha Mohammed, an archaeologist connected to the museum, returned but was unable to stop the looters. He then went in search of American forces, found five US soldiers who had entered the neighborhood, and brought them over to the museum. The soldiers fired over the heads of the looters and dispersed them. But then the soldiers told Mohammed that they had no orders to guard the museum. They were still fighting Iraqi military and Fedayeen in several pockets around the city.

On Friday the first stories started to appear about looting going on at the museum and by Saturday, April 12, the grounds of the Iraq National Museum were a magnet for the journalists who had stayed in Baghdad through the war and for the embedded journalists who had accompanied the American forces during the three-week campaign. Several Iraqis on the grounds who claimed to be employees or connected to the museum were quickly located and interviewed by the press group and many of the reports written that day featured Nabhal Amin, a woman who identified herself as a deputy director of the museum, Muhsen Kadhim, a security guard, and Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad.

The reporters on the scene identified these three variously, sometimes giving individual attribution, but other times referring to them simply as “museum officials.” John F. Burns, for example, in one of the starkest sentences in his initial article, writes, “Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.”

On Saturday, April 12, to Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh, Nabhal Amin said, "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years...They were worth billions of dollars." The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran also used Ms. Amin as a source:
"Our heritage is finished," lamented Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director, as she surveyed a Sumerian tablet that had been cracked in two. "Why did they do this? Why? Why?"
On Sunday, April 13, the Telegraph reported:
Surveying the smashed display cases at the museum last night, Nabhal Amin, the deputy director, struggled to hold back the tears. "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years," she said. "They were worth billions of dollars."
Reacting to these initial reports, archeologists and academics assumed the worst about the American military and voiced their outrage, spearheaded by the self-titled “weeping archeologist,” John Russell, a source for numerous news articles about the alleged looting of the museum.

Various academics spoke up at once without waiting for a critical investigation. Already on Monday, April 14, over at the History News Network website, Said Arjomand, a professor of sociology and the State University of New York, wrote that “the sack of the Iraq Museum under American occupation is unprecedented in recent history” and declared that the American forces were worse than the Nazis and the Mongols. “No one thought such an act of violence against humanity would occur after the occupation of Baghdad and under the eyes of our troops.”

Writing that same day on the same website, Piotr Michalowski, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, joined Mr. Arjomand. “The pillaging of the Baghdad Museum is a tragedy that has no parallel in world history,” he wrote.

Meanwhile at an April 15 news conference, Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the alleged looting of the museum, presciently replied, “I would suspect that over time we’ll find that a number of things were in fact hidden prior to the conflict.”

New Facts Begin to Emerge

While most members of the international media and academia were castigating the American forces and Bush administration, Ian Fisher of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, April 16, that Donny George now felt that “Iraq’s cultural heritage might not have vanished completely.” In that interview, George also explained that some of the collection had been placed in secure vaults before the war began. And the next day, April 17, Yaroslav Trofimov from the Wall Street Journal published an article in which Donny George admitted that “most of the things were removed.” On Thursday and Friday, then, the story that had been trumpeted around the world over the previous weekend was found to have more than a few qualifications.

Inexplicably, however, these revelations were not immediately followed up by the other media outlets. Part of the problem lay with the double-talking Donny George, who continued to blame the American administration for the looting and refused to correct the erroneous stories. Also, it was later learned that five officials connected to the museum led by Muayyad Damerji, an advisor to the Minister of Culture, had removed many valuable pieces of the collection themselves and had made a secret pact not to disclose the location of these items until a stable government was back in place. Donny George, it seems, was not aware of their actions.

In May evidence that the original story was flawed began to emerge. On May 1 the New York Times ran a headline that announced: "Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain." In an interview for The Art Newspaper, Donny George admitted to Martin Bailey that probably only a small percentage of the 170,000 was missing. On May 6 Barry Meier at the New York Times reported that the curator of the British Museum, John E. Curtis, had been informed that most of the items in the museum’s display cases had been removed beforehand and that only those pieces too large or too fragile to move remained at the outset of the war.

Then, at a May 16 press briefing, Col. Bogdanos announced that the figure of 170,000 was not accurate and that the number was more in the range of a few thousands. Lourdes Navarro, reporting on that briefing for the Associated Press, signaled the change in her lead:
U.S. authorities said Friday they are scaling back the estimates of how much treasure was looted from Iraq's National Museum after discovering that museum officials have been stashing items in secret vaults for at least 13 years.
Ms. Navarro also noted that Donny George now declared that “it’s time to work together to restore what was stolen.” Many other news outlets picked up on the updated details that had come out of the press briefing by Col. Bogdanos.

On May 22, Alex Spillius at the Telegraph reported that the Iraqi museum officials, now under pressure because their previous inflated claims were turning out to be inaccurate, had now shifted the blame to the international media. "There was a mistake,” Donny George told Spillius. “Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the show cases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move." Donny George also explained that the vast majority of the collection had already been relocated before the war. Mr. George did not, however, explain why he hadn’t forcefully corrected any of those early figures during the many press conferences he had given over the previous month.

“It’s Bollocks.”

In June the story was finally torpedoed and sunk. On Saturday, June 7, the Customs Service/State Dept. released its preliminary report on the investigation.

With the information from this report in hand, the Washington Post of June 9 began:
The world was appalled. One archaeologist described the looting of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities as "a rape of civilization." Iraqi scholars standing in the sacked galleries of the exhibit halls in April wept on camera as they stood on shards of cuneiform tablets dating back thousands of years.
However, with all the new revelations, “Apparently, it was not that bad.”

“So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves,” writes David Aaronovitch for the Guardian. “And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.”

On Nightline for June 10, Ted Koppel observed that "the truth behind this story is somewhat different.” He continues, “It turns out that almost all of the pieces are safe. They were hidden away by the museum staff for safekeeping.... They were hidden in a vault that was then flooded to protect it from looters. But the bottom line here? The museum staff apparently lied, in part to discredit the American troops."

Charles Krauthammer wondered why Donny George did not correct the exaggerated figures when he knew what the real numbers were. “Of course, George saw the story of the stolen 170,000 museum pieces go around the world and said nothing -- indeed, two weeks later, he was in London calling the looting ‘the crime of the century.’ Why? Because George and the other museum officials who wept on camera were Baath Party appointees, and the media, Western and Arab, desperate to highlight the dark side of the liberation of Iraq, bought their deceptions without an ounce of skepticism.”

Later in the month, the academics who were so quick to point their fingers at the American administration were themselves put on defense. On June 26, Piotr Michalowski writes, “Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports.” Instead of offering an apology or reflecting on why people in a profession who pride themselves as being critical and skeptical made such fundamental errors of judgment, Michalowski turned around and said, “This is much less than was initially reported, but it is still a catastrophe.”

Finally, on September 10, Col. Bogdanos came out with the investigation’s final report on the condition of the antiquities from the Iraq National Museum. While the administrative offices had indeed been emptied, the majority of the items from the public galleries had been moved before the war to the Central Bank of Iraq, a bunker in Western Baghdad, and around 40,000 pieces to a secret location. All of these pieces were returned safely to the museum. Also, of the 8 storage rooms, only 5 had been entered, and of the 5, only 3 had items missing. Bogdanos concluded that this theft was conducted by professional thieves, who came away with around 10,000 small pieces, mostly cylinder seals.

As of January, 2005, the last estimate, by archeologist Francis Deblauwe, is that of the 501,000 artifacts that were once in the museum around 13,000 are still missing.

Disposed to Believe the Worst

Months later, when the truth finally surfaced and people began to ask how the reporters had made so many basic mistakes, John F. Burns would confess to Andrew Lawler that he and the other journalists were “disposed to believe the worst” and that “passion got the better of us.” John F. Burns, to his credit, was one of the few people involved in this story to admit that a mistake had been made.

John F. Burns and Paul McGeough were also simply exhausted. They had been reporting non-stop for several months with a maximum of a few hours of sleep a night and trying to function under considerable and sometimes daily threats to their lives. They also were operating in an environment where it was almost impossible to verify much of the information that they gathered.

If there were one mistake that overshadowed all the others it would have to be using Nabhal Amin as a reliable witness when, in fact, she no longer worked for the museum complex. John F. Burns, Paul McGeough, Hamza Hendawi, and Hassan Hafidh had neither the time nor resources -- or perhaps even the inclination -- to verify her claim of identity and position.

At the same time, however, there were a few journalists who were skeptical of the overheated claims being tossed about by the press. We have seen that Yaroslav Trofimov, for example, even as early as April 17, had interviewed Donny George and reported that most of the items were most likely safe. In a May 9 radio interview for WBUR’s “Here & Now,” Trofimov said that the early mistakes in reporting were mainly due to the "inability of reporters to confirm facts" because there was no functioning government at the time. And many other reporters returned to the story and reconstructed a much more accurate picture of what had occurred, among the best being Roger Atwood, Andrew Lawler, and Dan Cruickshank.

Some reporters, like McGeough, used the situation to take a cheap-shot at the US administration. Others, like Burns, were simply "disposed to believe the worst." And still others were unable or unwilling to fact-check some of the basic points of the story, the most crucial being the figure of 170,000 coming from Nabhal Amin, a former official who was not privy to all of the procedures that had been implemented over the preceding months to safeguard Iraq's antiquities. The academics, however, probably come off with the largest stain on their reputations. That members of a professional class who swear by the tenets of critical thinking and the presentation of evidence at every turn would be the first ones to accuse the US military without waiting for a proper investigation tells us a lot about the state of current political discourse in academia. There were few apologies and when they did come they were uttered through clenched teeth.

For this same article with complete endnotes, go to "Iraq Antiquities Revisited (with References)."


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