Iraqi History: For Whom the Bell Tolls
It can only be described as astonishing, the fact that to explain away the failure of the US/UK occupation of Iraq, some people have sunk to a new depth and sought to exonerate themselves by placing the burden of responsibility upon the shoulders of Gertrude Bell.
It is often said, that people can talk bad words of the dead because they are not here to defend themselves but placing the blame upon Bell, who died in the 1920's, for the disasters of the Labour Government and their allies in 2003, is nothing more than an act of cowardice, in the efforts to cover up their own war crimes.
On many occasions, people have claimed that the failed occupation is a direct result of the "lines in the sand" drawn up by Bell, who in the early part of the twentieth century travelled and settled in Mesopotamia and after the First World War helped the then British occupiers create the borders of modern day Iraq, along with being the founder of the world renowned Baghdad National Museum.
Rory McCarthy once described the destruction by Iraq’s present occupiers to Babylon, "a city renowned for its beauty and its splendour 1,000 years before Europe built anything comparable, (Babylon) was chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq".
It was later proclaimed by John Curtis of the British Museum that "It is regrettable that a military camp of this size should have been established on one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain."
The article by McCarty, which was published by the Guardian, included a witness statement by a worker also for the British Museum, who having visited Babylon after the invasion described how: "a 2,600-year-old brick pavement" had been "crushed by military vehicles" and "archaeological fragments were left scattered across the site."
Other damage which the US caused to the site, included areas being covered in "gravel brought in from outside, compacted and sometimes chemically treated to provide helipads, car parks, accommodation and storage areas." Lord Redesdale, the head of Britain’s all-party parliamentary archaeological group stated, "What the American forces are doing is not only damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it’s actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world."
According to Donny George, who was director of antiquities in Baghdad before fleeing with his family in 2006, recently explained to one newspaper that before the invasion, "American archaeologists gave the military the co-ordinates for thousands of archaeological sites. So they knew where they were, they had the names of the sites, everything. The damage could have been avoided."
Millions of Iraqi’s still hold anger towards the desecration to the 1,200-year-old minaret of Samara, which was damaged by mortar fire and has since suffered further acts of vandalism, along with the total destruction of the bronze bust of Jaffar al-Mansour, which was "reduced to rubble by a roadside bomb". The occupation also sought to further eradicate Iraq from its history, when they destroyed the memorial to Michel Aflaq in 2003, "the father" of Pan-Arab Nationalism and one of the founders of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.
Felicity Arbuthnot explained in the article "Iraq’s Year Zero", how one Iraqi blogger pleaded for international solidarity to defend Iraq’s historical treasures, by asserting that the Supreme Committee for de-Baathification had ordered the destruction of the turquoise Shaheed monument to the Rivers of Tears and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.
The Unknown Soldier was completed in 1959, the year after the revolution which brought Abdul Kareem Qassim to power and toppled the British imposed royal family. The Unknown Soldier was created in homage to all those, who over the centuries: 'fell in defence of the country's dignity and pride.'
Along with the devastation to ancient sites, the occupation of Iraq also created a growth in the sales of stolen artefacts, where according to the State University of New York, "Private letters, contracts, works of literature and records of institutions can be found in the buildings where they were created" but have since been uprooted by fortune hunters and sold into private collections. According to some sources, it is estimated that over 16,000 items have disappeared since the start of the occupation, with other sources claiming that only half have since been returned.
Artefacts have even appeared on E-Bay, which once had for sale a Sumerian stone statue of a seated male, which dated back to 2450 BC. The statue, according the seller was located in the USA and it sold for $3,726.00 to a buyer who also resided in America. The seller informed potential customers that other "rare and extraordinary" items from Iraq have sold for as much as $12, 000 in auction.
Other pieces that have been up for grabs online, include a 1762 coloured engraved map of Babylonia and Palestine, an 1800 BC old Babylonian clay tablet, a 1800 BC Babylonian Plaque, Sumerian coins dated back to 3000 BC, a 3000 BC Babylonian Turquoise Gem pendant and an Old Babylonian Cuneiform Tablet which dated back to around 2100-2000 BC.
Whilst stealing is even considered to be a crime in democracies as great as Britain and the US, the contradiction here includes the fact that US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in 2003, that anyone who was either possessing or dealing in stolen artefacts: "may be prosecuted under Iraqi law and under the United States National Stolen Property Act".
The creativity which was used to develop and explain Iraq’s history is also under attack, as a direct result in the growth of post-invasion religious fundamentalism. In May 2008, the Observer published an article which described how "culture was encouraged under Saddam, but not anymore" and that artists, who have traditionally acted as the conduits in developing Iraqi history into a contemporary form, are also being "cleansed" from Iraq, with "Cinemas, art galleries, theatres, and concert halls being destroyed in grenade and mortar attacks".
Shortly before her death in 1926, the founder of Iraq’s national museum, Gertrude Bell, gave one last promise to the people of the East and stated, "You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again", which were wise words that have since echoed through Iraq but not the corridors of Parliament. Those words were said over eighty years ago now, by the woman who was found dead after an over-dose of sleeping tablets and has since been regarded as the "uncrowned queen of Iraq" and "Daughter of the Desert".
In 2006, one journalist even braved a war zone to visit the British cemetery in Baghdad and the grave of Gertrude Bell, where he was escorted to the graveside and described how "the cemetery gate groaned" on their entrance and was lead "along rows of broken tombs", each damaged by age and war. "There she is," said Ali Mansur the grave keeper and looking at his guest he then pointed at the name: "I take care of her now. But nobody visits!"
by Hussein Al-alak, chairman of The Iraq Solidarity Campaign. For whom the Bell Tolls was first published on November 3, 2008 by Uruknet.
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Iraq's antiquities are facing an old enemy.A new wave of looting has hit museums and archaeological sites across southern Iraq.Officials say the treasures have been left completely unprotected and exposed to increasingly organised gangs.That's despite a national and international clamour to protect Iraq's history.
From Baghdad Al Jazeera's Omar Al Saleh reports.
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Gold earrings made for an Assyrian queen, a sacred 4,000-year-old statue, and 540 other looted pieces of Iraq’s ancient history were formally returned to Iraq on Monday in what was billed as a triumph of justice and international cooperation.
“This is a very happy day – we are making progress in the very important field of returning Iraqi history to its rightful home,” said Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaidaie, who said the objects had been found through a combination of Iraqi and American efforts. “Iraq cannot be summarized by 30 years of problems and wars – it can stand and it can reclaim its history.”
He noted, however, that a previous shipment of 632 stolen pieces recovered in the US had gone missing after being delivered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office last year.The looting of the Iraq museum was one of the most controversial moments in the early part of the war. US troops sent in to topple Saddam Hussein and secure the city had no orders to protect the museum or other cultural institutions. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of pieces of Iraq’s history were looted while other cultural institutions were burned.
Monday's return of more than 542 involved countries including Syria, Germany, and Turkey – as well as the United States, operating through a dozen different government agencies – and was hailed as a significant achievement.“This goes back to the most sensitive nerve in the Iraqi psyche,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Monitor. “These are antiquities that have been stolen from the museum and now to get them back is a healing process – that we, your sons, the government, the embassies the ministries are able to bring them back is very, very important.”
Another 632 recovered pieces are now missing
Each of the recovered pieces has a story to it. But in a twist worthy of a detective novel, Mr. Sumaidaie noted the missing shipment of the 632 recovered looted pieces sent back from the US. Because of Baghdad's precarious security, the Iraqi ambassador said he had arranged with Gen. David Petraeus to have them returned.
“We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them,” Sumadaie told diplomats and journalists gathered at the Foreign Ministry.The pointed comment by the nonpartisan ambassador was seen as an effort to put pressure on an unresponsive prime minister's office to either produce or account for the artifacts.
The pieces signed for at the prime ministry were mostly cylinder seals – ancient carved stone cylinders used as personal signatures – and other small items, but Iraqi authorities have not been able to get an answer as to what has happened to them, he told the Monitor.Prime Minister Maliki’s office could not be reached for comment.
Too dangerous to display them in museum
Many of the more than 540 recovered items have been at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington over the past two years, waiting for security to improve in the Iraqi capital as well as for the bureaucratic requirements involved in shipping the pieces to be worked out.While attacks have fallen significantly in the past two years, security is still fragile and there are no immediate plans to reopen the Iraq museum to the general public. The earrings will go back into a bank vault rather than a museum display case.
On Sunday, a group of suicide bombers tried to storm a Defense Ministry building in central Baghdad. Twelve people were killed in the attack, which was repelled with the help of a US Army unit stationed inside the building.On Monday, two American soldiers were killed in the north of the country and an Iraqi television anchorman, Riyad al-Serai, was gunned down in West Baghdad.
How the antiquities were retrieved
The retrieval of each one of the major pieces is one of international intrigue. The earrings were found after they offered for sale at auction at Christie’s in New York last December. The catalog listed them as having been acquired by the owner before 1969, the year before a UNESCO convention made it more difficult to trade in antiquities.
The earrings were recognized by Iraqi archaeologists as part of the treasures of Nimrud, excavated in 1989 when an Iraqi team discovered a royal tomb overlooked by previous British excavations. They were believed stolen from the Baghdad Museum before the collection was put into safekeeping in bank vaults before the 1991 war with the US over Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Christie’s, which had put opening bids at $45,000 to $65,000 for the earrings, withdrew them after the Iraq Embassy launched a formal claim.The treasures of Nimrud were considered one of the most spectacular finds of the 20th century, on a scale of the gold found in King Tut’s tomb. The gold jewelry and other objects were publicly exhibited only twice – the second time for just one afternoon when US occupation authorities reopened the museum in 2003 for a day before abruptly closing it again because of violence.
Headless basalt statue, Saddam's machine gun
The other retrieved objects on display on Monday included a 440-lb. headless basalt statue of Assyrian ruler King Entemena, who ruled around 2,400 B.C., found in Ur early in the last century. It was believed to have taken as a war trophy from Lagash and had its head removed in antiquity.
The shipment from the US included a modern-day war trophy – a pearl-handled, Russian-made machine gun once given as a gift to Hussein and looted by a US Army soldier from a palace in 2003. US Customs agents retrieved the rifle from the headquarters of a Fort Lewis, Wash.-based Stryker brigade and returned it to Iraqi authorities.They also included a Torah – a scroll with a handwritten copy of the Jewish Old Testament – retrieved from Germany. Iraqi antiquity officials have quietly launched a campaign to retrieve Jewish artifacts illegally taken out of the country after the looting in 2003.
35,000 pieces returned since 2003
The US State Department helped restore about 200 of the pieces that had been found damaged – the majority of them cuneiform and stone tablets and tiny cylinder seals.The director of the Iraq Museum, Amira Edan, said 35,000 pieces have been returned since 2003.Dr. Edan said she was still trying to retrieve looted cuneiform tablets being held by the Spanish government, which has said it requires more proof that they belong to Iraq.
By Jane Arraf, Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor
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Iraq announced on Tuesday the return of hundreds of looted antiquities that had ended up in the United States, even as a senior official disclosed that 632 pieces repatriated last year and turned over to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki were now unaccounted for.
The latest trove reflects not only a history dating from the world’s oldest civilizations but also a more recent and tortured history of war, looting and international smuggling that began under Saddam Hussein, accelerated after the American occupation and continues at archaeological sites to this day.
The returned items include a 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum here after the American invasion in 2003; an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990s and seized before an auction at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets smuggled out of Iraq that were seized by the American authorities in 2001 and were being stored in the World Trade Center when it was destroyed.
There was also a more recent relic: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Mr. Hussein, taken by an American soldier as booty and displayed at Fort Lewis, Wash. Kitsch, certainly, but priceless in its own way.While Iraqi officials celebrated the repatriation of what they called invaluable relics — “the return of Iraq’s heritage to our house,” as the state minister of tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, put it — the fate of those previously returned raised questions about the country’s readiness to preserve and protect its own treasures.
Appearing at a ceremony displaying the artifacts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, pointedly said a previous shipment of antiquities had been returned to Iraq last year aboard an American military aircraft authorized by Gen. David H. Petraeus, only to end up missing.“They went to the prime minister’s office, and that was the last time they were seen,” said Mr. Sumaidaie, who has worked fervently with American law enforcement officials in recent years to track down loot that had found its way into the United States.
It was not immediately clear what happened, and Mr. Sumaidaie said he had tried and failed to find out. He did not directly accuse Mr. Maliki’s government of malfeasance, but he expressed frustration that the efforts to repatriate works of art and antiquities had resulted in such confusion and mystery.Ali al-Mousawi, a government spokesman, demanded that the American government account for the artifacts since an American military aircraft delivered them. “We didn’t receive anything,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Jibouri, one of Mr. Maliki’s advisers, said that if the relics were not somewhere in the prime minister’s custody, then they would probably be with the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the country’s museums. Its spokesman declined to comment.Amira Edan, the director of the National Museum, said none of the objects had been returned to her collection, which is where, she said, they all belonged.
Mr. Jibouri said a committee would be formed to investigate.Perhaps with this uncertainty in mind, Mr. Jibouri and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari publicly signed documents transferring custody of the latest batch of artifacts — which arrived in Baghdad on Monday, packed in wooden crates, aboard a specially chartered aircraft — to the museum.“The artifacts are what’s pushing us to build the present and future, so we deserve this great heritage,” Mr. Zebari said during the ceremony.
The United States has returned 1,046 antiquities since 2003, when looters ransacked buildings across Iraq, including its museums, according to the American Embassy here. For all the international outrage the looting stirred toward the United States and its allies, many of the items were smuggled out of the country before the invasion, often with the connivance of officials in Saddam Hussein’s government, according to archaeological officials here.
They have been tracked and seized by the F.B.I., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and other law enforcement agencies, often working on tips from experts and officials with the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, which stored many of them at its building on Massachusetts Avenue for safekeeping as Iraq remained engulfed in violence.Only a handful of the items returned on Tuesday once belonged to the National Museum. The most prominent is the statue of King Entemena, the oldest known representation of a monarch from the ancient civilizations that once thrived in Mesopotamia.
Carved from black diorite, it is 30 inches tall and headless, and inscribed with cuneiform that says it was placed in a temple in Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to please the god Enlil. It weighs 330 pounds but disappeared from the museum during the looting, only to be seized in a 2006 sting when someone in Syria tried to sell it to an art dealer in New York.Another Sumerian sculpture, a bronze depicting a king named Shulgi, had been shipped by Federal Express from a London dealer to a collector in Connecticut, but was seized at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Many such pieces are items that Iraq never knew it had lost.Iraq has 12,000 known archaeological sites where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities — and later Islamic cities — once stood. Many are unprotected, and have been badly looted for years, especially during the bloodiest years of war in 2006 and 2007. A special police force created in 2008 has yet to fill its ranks, mired at its inception by the government’s bureaucracy and a lack of support for cultural preservation.
The National Museum, which officially reopened last year though many of its galleries remain closed and in disrepair, has recovered roughly half of 15,000 pieces that were looted from its collection.All told, Iraqi officials say they have confiscated and returned to government property more than 30,000 antiquities and artworks since 2003, from inside and outside Iraq. The museum can hold only a fraction of those.“We can make 15 museums like the one we had,” its deputy director, Muhsin Hassan Ali, said on Tuesday.
The ultimate fate of the Saddam Hussein AK-47 also remains unclear, though it too was signed over to the custody of the National Museum. “Some material belongs to the fourth millennium B.C.,” Ms. Edan, the museum’s director, said laughing, “and the new ones belong to Saddam’s Iraq.”The assault rifle ended up at the headquarters of the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it had been taken “legally via official Army channels with the intent of placing it in a military museum as a war trophy.” Agents confiscated it after Mr. Sumaidaie’s aides read about it in a local newspaper report.
A factory in Iraq once produced AK-47s, including some plated in gold and chrome, which Mr. Hussein distributed as gifts. At the time the rifle was recovered, a special agent of ICE in New York, Peter J. Smith, called it “a priceless symbol of Iraqi history.”
By STEVEN LEE MYERS of the New York Times, with Stephen Farrell and Zaid Thaker contributing to this reporting.
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A new documentary being shown out of competition at the Venice Film Festival explores the trauma of three U.S. war veterans who served in Iraq and how the military handled their cases."Ward 54," so named for the psychiatric wing of the U.S. military's Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, also deals with the rise in military suicides following Iraq duty.
The film opens with the case of Army Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith, whose job was to photograph Iraqi war victims to identify them. Goldsmith recounts how serving his country had always been his life's dream, but it turned into a nightmare when told he would be deployed again to Iraq."For over a year I knew something inside me wasn't right. I was drinking close to a gallon of vodka every weekend and starting fights," Goldsmith recalled Tuesday in Venice, where "Ward 54" had been screened the previous night.When told he had to go back to Iraq for duty, Goldsmith recalled: "I said I can't go back to Iraq. I wasn't afraid of Iraq, but knew I couldn't return."
He said his colonel gave him three choices: "'One, you can suck it up and go back. Two, you can go AWOL and live your life as a felon and three, you can kill yourself.'"He attempted suicide on Memorial Day 2007."I was absolutely disgusted with the treatment from the military when I was trying to get help," he said from Venice's Excelsior Hotel, where he was doing media interviews alongside Italian director Monica Maggioni.Last month, a Congressionally-ordered report found historically high rates of suicides in the U.S. military, saying more than 1,100 members of the armed forces had killed themselves from 2005 to 2009 and that suicides are rising again this year.The sharpest increases were in the Army and Marine Corps, the services most stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Goldsmith credits therapy but also his work as an activist for helping him deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder he has suffered following his Iraq service. He speaks at U.S. colleges to raise awareness of PTSD and says he often hears from vets struggling with the same issues."The experience I went through and my story, it is me and it defines me," he said. "It used to be a horrific negative thing, and I managed to turn it into a positive thing."Director Maggioni, a foreign correspondent for Italy's state-run RAI television, said her own combat coverage during the Iraq invasion informed her sympathies for soldiers suffering from PTSD."I understand perfectly what they go through," she said, noting that she was the only Italian reporter embedded with the U.S. military during the 2003 invasion. "From that moment on I had a particular interest in all issues related to the war."
While filming the documentary has helped Goldsmith recover, he still has some unfinished business with the U.S. military: He has been denied an honorable discharge because of his suicide attempt."I appealed for an honorable discharge, and on the anniversary of my suicide attempt that got turned down. I need to start an entirely new case," he said.
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