Sunday, April 15, 2007

LOOTING CONTINUES IN IRAQ

Looters using mechanical diggers and protected by their own private armies are destroying Iraq's ancient archeological sites - shattering priceless artefacts from the dawn of civilisation - despite a pledge by Britain to protect them. Leading historians say the British Government has backtracked on a promise made four years ago to prevent 5,000-year-old cities such as Umma from being turned into "lunar landscapes" by thieves. Satellite images show that archaeological sites equivalent in size to 3,000 football pitches have been dug up and plundered by teams of Iraqi looters bussed in by antiquities dealers.

"A country's past is disappearing while we stand and watch," said Professor Roger Matthews, chairman of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. "Archaeological sites including entire ancient cities are being destroyed by illicit digging." The television historian Michael Wood added: "What has happened is a catastrophe. Umma is one of the great sites. Some of their libraries include law and literature going back to 3000 BC. But it has become a vast, pockmarked lunar landscape."

Four years ago Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, promised £15m to protect the ancient sites in what was Mesopotamia, historians claim. They argue the failure to guard the sites flouts the Hague Convention requiring cultural sites of occupied states to be protected. The Department of Culture now says this money was part of general reconstruction funds and no specific pledge to protect ancient sites was made.

Professor Elizabeth Stone, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, has analysed satellite images of 2,000 sites in Iraq. She found looting over an area of six square miles - ranging from small areas to entire buried ancient cities. "In the big sites there is organised looting where people are bussed by the antiquities dealers," she said. "Police who tried to sort out the looters at Umma were outgunned. The looters came with their own guards. The illegal antiquities trade is no different form the illegal drugs trade. There are major cities being totally destroyed."

Artefacts including ancient Babylonian seals and irreplaceable cuneiform tablets are disappearing before they can be examined by archaeologists. They are believed to be stored in warehouses and smuggled out of Iraq to America and European markets. Fragments of tablets that may seem worthless are being discarded by treasure seekers who are unaware they are throwing away secrets to the shared heritage of east and west. The city of Bad-Tibira has been wiped out and Isin, which was partially excavated in the early 1970s, has also been extensively plundered.

Professor Matthews added: "Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime the occupying powers in Iraq have signally failed to invest the funds and energies needed to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq which is ultimately under their guardianship." Babylon was damaged during the occupation by American troops who landed helicopters on top of it. Uniquely among the ancient cities, it is now being guarded by Iraqis.

Before Saddam was deposed the sites were protected by guards and looting was punished by death. Now when Italian troops tried to stop looting at one site they were driven back by private soldiers. When the Italians succeeded in seizing some looted artefacts the lorry containing them was hijacked and the drivers were found dead beside the empty lorry.

Ms Jowell's pledge to protect Iraqi heritage came after the much-publicised looting of Iraq's national museum. Archaeologists say the money never materialised. Recently the Department of Culture rolled back from the commitment and said it was up to Iraqis to protect their sites.

A spokesman said: "Tessa Jowell's announcement on 29 April 2003 about the £15m did not imply that this money was to be spent on culture but rather that it was a central pot earmarked by the Government for reconstruction efforts in Iraq which departments could bid for. In the event, no cultural projects were supported through this fund."

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