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US Marines Protect Ancient Iraqi City of Babylon

Strange things happen during wars: the unexpected, the unexplainable and the unusual. One unusual outcome of the Iraq war is the encampment of U.S. Marines at ancient Babylon, one of the oldest cities on earth.

At first it looks like any other U.S. Marine encampment in Iraq, the humvees, tanks, everyday activities. But then, there’s the Ishtar Gate, the entrance to Babylon, a city founded more than 4,300 years ago.

“It’s a replica, half the size of what it used to be," said Gunnery Sergeant Claudia Lamantia. "In 1904 when the Germans came over, they took a lot of the ruins with them and they now sit in Berlin.”

Sergeant Lamantia is a guide for military and media visitors to this site, which is closed to the public after being attacked by looters at the end of the war in April.

The curators tried to protect museum buildings from looting by bricking up entrances, but that didn’t help much.

“They were able to get in here and get a few things. But they didn’t come in through the doors,” Sgt. Lamantia said.

In the first room, only a mosaic and models are left. Another room was ransacked. Officers are working to help assess the damage. The only artifact left is a stone slab depicting a horse.

“I supposed they just looked at it and said it’s way too heavy," Ms. Lamantia said. "Everything else in here is gone.”

Saddam Hussein rebuilt new walls for the North Palace on top of its ruins. The first king had placed bricks in these walls praising his own leadership. She said the bricks date back to 605 B.C.

Saddam put bricks with his name here too. The looters took some Saddam bricks. “Maybe to sell as souvenirs,” Sgt. Lamantia said.

The courtyards stretch one after another to the throne room associated with the Biblical story of King Balshassar’s impending death and the prophet Daniel. The room is “where they say he saw the writing on the wall and he brought Daniel to interpret it,” Sgt. Lamantia said.

Military chaplains are eager for marines to visit Babylon and understand its religious significance to Christians and Jews.

“They’ll bring them here for a couple of days so that they can relax, take a look at the ruins," Sgt. Lamantia said. "The chaplains have a dual purpose. They want to get everyone motivated to see the historical value of this place and secondly, the Biblical [value] because that’s their business. But the marines enjoy it.”

She said “a lot of us never imagined that we’d be here. Especially doing this. I mean, I live in Babylon.”

The unrestored southern palace shows what time and weather do to buildings. The lion of Babylon, the symbol of the city’s greatness, is damaged but still here in the sweltering heat. One of Saddam’s modern palaces, also now looted, looks out over the city.

The walls of this national treasure of Iraq await their future, as they have for thousands of years in the past.