Accessibility links

Breaking News

Frontline Report: Cultural Treasures Unique in Iraq

Iraq is not only rich in oil, but also ancient cultural treasures. This adds a dimension to the war, prompting American and English coalition forces to take unusual measures to protect historic sites.

Iraq is home to some of the world's most important archeological sites, boasting thousands of priceless cultural relics, some more than 10,000 years old. Major Chris Varhola of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs Battalion explains that the leaders of the coalition forces are sensitive to the need to protect Iraq's historic treasures during the war.

"I first became acquainted with the complex nature of the situation in Iraq concerning arts and monuments when I was tank platoon leader 1991 with the second army Calvary regiment. Our fighting positions were in and around Nasiryiah, which is also in and around the city of Ur," he says. "In that case, I'm not here to make a political statement, but I did personally observe how Iraqi jets were parked around the ziggurat, obviously so we would not hit the jets. So, I personally observed how the Iraqi military moved jet fights to immediate proximity of a great ziggurat that dates approximately to 2000 BC. This is purposefully done because they know we take extreme measures to protect cultural, religious and archaeological sites."

Protecting these sites is not simply part of a war plan; it is in accordance with the basic spirit of humanity and the Geneva Convention. Major Varhola adds that twelve years ago everyone in his division felt that it was not necessary to endanger these sites in their efforts to destroy Iraqi fighter planes.

"In the case of Ur, in 1991, for instance, our assessment was that the long-term damage done to world culture was clearly not worth the short-term military gains that would have been made by destroying the Iraqi jets. As a result the jets were not hit, as a side note, they were towed away when we conquered that area towed away by tractors and then blown up in place," says Major Varhola. "But our missiles and our jets intentionally let those jets survive because we did not want to hit that ziggurat. And on a personal note, that is how I became acquainted with the need for protection of arts and monuments, particularly in Iraq which has multiple tens of thousands of archeological sites, not just the big ones, but even the smaller ones, villages dating back up to 10,000 years."

Major Varhola is a member of the Civil Affairs unit, which is predominately made up of Reservists. A key point in Civil Affairs is that they capitalize on the civilian career fields of soldiers such as himself, and how they can be translated into military operations.

Major Varhola explains that the coalition forces have several hundred personnel professionals that specialize in planning and commanding to protect Iraq's cultural treasures. He adds that all ground forces equipped with heavy bombing capabilities have a specialist who is there to contribute ideas on how to preserve cultural relics. "On a tactical level also, army civil affairs assets work closely with ground commanders and advise them of archeological and cultural sites in their areas of operation," he says. "The institutional mechanism for this is by the cultural affairs officers, which is an actual position in civil affairs, cultural affairs officer, whose responsibility is to do the research both on its own and with the higher headquarters so that he is aware or she is aware of targets that need to be protected."

Another problem that deeply concerns coalition forces is looting. During this war Major Varhola states that there will be individuals who will take advantage of the confusion and loot ancient historic sites and museums. The United Nations' Cultural Preservation Division intends to aid the coalition forces to prevent looting and stealing.

Colonel John Catis from the Coalition Forces Civil Affairs Staff states that the dexterous weapons used in this war are the best way to protect cultural relics. He adds that these weapons are able to hit their targets with extreme precision, and are often able to protect historic sites while destroying the enemy at the same time. He said that before shooting at enemy targets, coalition troops make absolutely certain that they are exact targets. During the night, they do not attack any targets that may be in the proximity of any historic sites they must see the target before opening fire. By regulation, coalition troops are not permitted entry to mosques in Iraq. If there is a need to enter a mosque, it must be a Moslem soldier who enters.