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Editorial: Pillaging Iraq's past / The U.S. should try to reclaim and save antiquities

Monday, April 14, 2003

A perhaps apocryphal story is told of an encounter during World War I between a patriotic British lady and a student at Oxford University. Seeing the student leisurely strolling to a lecture, the woman asked him: "Why aren't you fighting for civilization?" The student replied: "Madame, I am civilization."

The student's answer is so offensive, almost a century later, because it has a kernel of truth. Human beings live and die, but history and culture survive -- if they are allowed to. In Iraq looters have ransacked a museum containing antiquities that are the patrimony not just of the Cradle of Civilization but of the entire human race.

Officials at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad told The New York Times over the weekend that 50,000 artifacts had been carried away by looters, including such treasures as a gold harp from the Sumerian period between 3360 B.C. and 2000 B.C., and a collection of jewelry and sculpture from that era. It is possible that museum officials hid some of the most precious antiquities before the looting began, but there is little doubt that a major collection has been devastated.

The question is whether U.S. military forces could have done more to prevent the looting of these artifacts. An Iraqi archeologist said that he alerted U.S. troops on Thursday that the museum was overrun by looters, and that five U.S. marines had followed him to the museum and fired above the looters' heads, dispersing several thousand of them away from the site. But he was turned down, he said, when he requested that a U.S. tank be moved to the museum grounds to deter looting.

Obviously the first priority of U.S. forces is their own safety. At the time of the looting, U.S. officials say, there was still a concern about pockets of resistance in the Iraqi capital. We would not glibly second-guess a particular decision not to secure a museum at a particular time. But it is legitimate even now to ask whether protection of these treasures was given enough attention in military planning. Certainly their recovery should be a high priority once law and order are re-established in Iraq.

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