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Archeologists Request Immediate Protection for Iraqi Museums - 2003-04-17


Archeologists and Iraqi experts called Thursday for coalition forces to immediately secure Iraq's museums and historic sights and for a temporary ban on exports of Iraqi artifacts. The demands came during a Paris meeting to assess the damage the war has done to Iraq's priceless cultural heritage.

Experts still don't know the exact extent of last week's plunder of Iraq's national museum in Baghdad, which contained many of the country's most important archeological treasures.

But McGuire Gibson, head of the American Association of Research in Baghdad, believes that expert gangs may have obtained keys to the museum and made off with many priceless artifacts. Mr. Gibson believes these gangs may have been directed from abroad and that some of the artifacts may soon be arriving in Paris and other European capitals.

"It looks as if... at least part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action, probably by the same sorts of gangs that had been paying for the destruction, the excavation of sites in Iraq over the last 12 years," he said.

Mr. Gibson was among 30 top-level experts who gathered in Paris for an emergency day-long meeting called by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to assess the damage to Iraq's cultural heritage.

UNESCO hopes to send a team of experts as soon as possible to Iraq, to calculate the exact extent of the destruction.

Besides the looting of the Baghdad museum, experts also fear widespread plundering of archeological sites. Coalition forces also appeared to have inadvertently bombed at least two museums. In addition, fires have destroyed hundreds of ancient korans and documents in the country's capital.

Iraq is considered the cradle of major, ancient civilizations, and the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. The vast majority of ancient sites, however, lie unexcavated.

All exports and sale of Iraqi antiquities have been banned for almost 50 years. But archeologists believe illegal trade is flourishing. To survive, impoverished Iraqis have plundered their own heritage, said expert Salma El Radi.

"If you have a family and you need to feed your family, and the only way you can do it is by looting a site, you'll be drawn to the site," she said. "And you're going to sell it for any amount of money, because with that money you can feed your family for the next couple of days."

The experts in Paris expressed disappointment at the extent of the looting, and the fact that coalition forces had not moved immediately to secure Baghdad's museum and other sites.

Before the war, UNESCO and top archeologists in the United States had provided the Bush administration with maps detailing the locations of Iraqi museums and other landmarks.