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UNESCO Worried War Could Damage Iraqi Archeological Sites - 2003-03-29

As U.S. and British forces advance toward Baghdad, television pictures show a land that seems to offer nothing but desert. But for officials of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, nothing could be further from the truth. The land of Iraq, they say, has long been considered a crossroad of ancient civilizations.

For most people, especially now, when Iraq is mentioned the name Saddam Hussein immediately comes to mind. But for Mounir Bouchenaki, the assistant director general for culture of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Iraq conjures up many more images. It is the Fertile Crescent, the land of Babylon, the biblical Garden of Eden and of Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

Mr. Bouchenaki is following the war developments closely. So far, he says, three museums have been damaged by bombs, including one in the northern city of Mosul, which experts say has irreplaceable artifacts. He is also concerned about fighting around the southern city of Basra. "We know that, for example, that Basra has an old quarter which has very valuable buildings of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries," said Mounir Bouchenaki. "And also some old churches in Basra. And of course we are worried that if there are battles in Basra, we hope they will not be in the museum of Basra and this old quarter."

Archeological damage and wartime looting took place during the last Gulf war in 1991, not to mention in Afghanistan, last year. Both countries are centuries-old hubs of trade and war.

But Mr. Bouchenaki says Iraq houses a larger, richer slice of cultural history. Indeed, he says, only a small percentage of the country's archeological sites have been excavated. "In Iraq, when you are traveling in the countryside and you see just a small elevation of earth, it's almost 100 percent sure you have an archeological site below," he said. "So the experts evaluate that in Iraq we have about 10,000 sites. Among them, only 100 have been excavated."

Top archeologists and collectors have urged the U.S. government to avoid damaging archeological sites during the military campaign, and have provided U.S. officials with the locations of more than 4,000 sites.

UNESCO has also sent a map of sites to Washington, along with a list of key museums. Mr. Bouchenaki says he has been told that U.S. and allied forces are instructed not to hit the locations.

Mr. Bouchenaki also credits the Iraqi government with protecting the sites from damage and pillaging over the years. Museum officials in Baghdad began packing some artifacts weeks before the war began. After the war, experts will plan how to preserve the country's priceless heritage, which Mr. Bouchenaki says belongs not only to Iraqis, but also to the world community.