Modern warfare blights Iraq's ancient past

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Posted by andreas from ( on Wednesday, November 27, 2002 at 4:43AM :

Globe & Mail [Canada]
Nov 27, 2002

Modern warfare blights Iraq's ancient past

Renewed conflict could boost looting
of Mesopotamia, archeologists fear


Special to The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 Print Edition, Page A16

Western television viewers have grown accustomed to aerial views of Iraq -- footage shot from military jets or the tips of high-tech bombs shows grainy images of indistinct structures being blown away with video-game certainty. The resumption of high-tech UN weapons inspections, starting today, may well generate still more satellite footage.

But the view from the ground includes some of the world's most significant archeological sites, most famously those in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Vestiges of Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Parthian and other ancient cultures are scattered throughout the country, a magnet for archeologists for more than a century.

That heritage will be exposed to serious threats in the event of another war in Iraq, according to scholars and United Nations officials, and little can be done to protect the many vulnerable sites. Instead, they are hoping for the best and pushing to strengthen Iraq's antiquities agency.

"It would probably be strategically ineffective, at this stage, to invest precious resources to restore or develop individual monuments while the central services are not in a position to ensure their long-term conservation," said Paola Leoncini-Bartoli, a program specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Despite sanctions imposed in the early 1990s, UNESCO has maintained contact with officials of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage, and international archeological teams have been digging in the country. But the sanctions have depleted the Baghdad agency's staffing levels and contributed to the alarmingly high incidence of looting and illicit trade in Iraqi artifacts -- the main concern among scholars and officials.

"In the last war, there was some 'military' damage to a few sites, but we're more worried about the aftermath," said McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago.

In outlying areas, looting goes well beyond a few grave-robbers with shovels. Archeologists say armed crews often number in the hundreds and use heavy equipment to gut sites of interest.

After the last war, the seventh-century BC neo-Assyrian palace of King Sennacherib, in Nineveh, northern Iraq, was stripped of significant wall sculptures -- part of a steady flow of illegal exports that has surfaced on the international market since, according to John Russell, a professor of art history and archeology at the Massachusetts College of Art. Likewise, he said, in nearby Nimrud, a storehouse containing sculptures from another Assyrian palace was robbed.

A renewed conflict could spawn looting on a similar scale, Prof. Russell said, not unlike the pillage that has taken place in another target of Washington's war on terror.

"Afghanistan is a possible example of what happens when a government is destabilized and there's no provision made to extend control of the new government anywhere beyond the centre," he said.

Iraq's antiquities laws date from the 1930s, the legal legacy of the post-First World War British mandate. UNESCO and a number of other international groups want to support that legal infrastructure and bolster the Iraqi antiquities department.

"The legal regime for dealing with antiquities is just fine," said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at Chicago's DePaul University School of Law who also has a doctorate in archeology.

But a postwar scenario would present challenges, especially given the stiff competition for resources.

"They will need money to protect sites -- to rebuild museums, and make sure security is in place," Prof. Gerstenblith said. "Saddam Hussein built a lot of local and regional museums. A lot of security is needed."

Occupation forces will be the first line against looting, although it's unclear how high a priority that will be.

A secondary concern for scholars and agencies is the possibility for bombing damage in Iraq. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict bars the targeting of cultural sites unless militarily necessary. However, the United States is not a party to the treaty, although it recognizes it as customary international law. (Canada ratified the convention in 1998.)

With war looming, U.S. officials are studying maps and polling scholars on the locations of significant sites, and combat commanders would be alerted to their presence. "If there's any question of a monument under protection in the area, then the commander knows that," said Scott Silliman, a professor of law at Duke University and an adviser to combat commanders during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Few experts expect the United States to target cultural sites deliberately, but Prof. Silliman noted that "when the country that has responsibility for that facility or monument intentionally abuses the protections by using it as guise for military activity, it becomes a lawful military target."


Copyright 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

-- andreas
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