Too little, too late - GulfToday

Too little, too late

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


US President Joe Biden with Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s prime minister, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington D.C. on Monday, July 26, 2021. Photo: TNS

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi returned to Baghdad from his recent visit to Washington with a pledge from US President Joe Biden to end “US combat missions” in Iraq and a plane load of 17,000 stolen Iraqi antiquities confiscated by the US authorities from dealers, individuals and institutions.

The pledge was a sham which fools no one. Iraqis have long demanded the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US forces in Iraq. Instead of leaving, most troops will stay on to provide logistics support, intelligence and advice to the Iraqi army which the US has failed to train to assume these functions over the past 20 years — just as the US has failed to prepare the Afghan army to face a resurgent Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Biden’s ploy might impress the largely ignorant US public but not the pro-Iran Iraqi militias which have pressed for a full US pull out and, although told by Tehran to halt attacks, will continue rocketing, shelling, and mounting drone strikes at Iraqi military bases hosting US troops. Biden will have to retaliate, boosting tensions and risking tit-for-tat reprisals. The situation will remain tense and risky.

The repatriation of Iraqi antiquities is a positive development while too little, too late. Iraqis are rightly proud of their ancient civilisation and long history. Most of the items returned last week relate to trade during the Sumarian period, the earliest civilisation in southern Mesopotamia dating from 4500-1900 BC. The most historically valuable artefact is a 3,500 year-old clay tablet, called the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which tells the story of a flood — perhaps, the Biblical flood. The 15-by-12 centimeter fragment, closely covered in cuneaform writing, is one of the earliest known literary works. It was stolen from an unknown site in Iraq and sold for $50,000 in London in 2003 by Jordanian antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani. An unknown vendor transported the tablet, along with brass objects, to the US in violation of a 2004 US law prohibiting the importation of Iraqi antiquities after August 1990, when the US slapped sanctions on Iraq following its occupation of Kuwait.

The importer also drew up fake provenance before committing the tablet for sale at an auction house. The tablet was resold several times before being purchased from a New York auction house by the US Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts shops for $1.67 million in 2014 and donated to the Museum of the Bible in 2017.

Hobby Lobby is owned by evangelical Christian billionaire David Green, who has donated $500 million to evangelical causes and is the prime mover of and major donor to the museum. The tablet was confiscated by the US justice department in 2019 after a protracted legal battle in New York state.

Hobby Lobby has a history of acquiring dodgy antiquities. In 2017, the US repatriated to Iraq 3,800 artefacts purchased by the firm and in 2020 the US returned to Iraq and Egypt another 11,500 items illegally imported by Hobby Lobby. The firm was fined $3 million, warned and placed under official monitoring.

Like all the modern countries of this region and the Eastern Mediterranean, Iraq contains thousands of archaeological sites. While 12,500 have been officially designated as part of the country’s cultural heritage, there are hundreds — perhaps even an equal number — of unexcavated

sites, providing fertile fields for looters. They deplete the country’s ancient heritage by digging both identified and uncharted sites, destroying the context of their finds, and exporting them. Their activities rob humanity of the stories of rising and falling civilisations.

After the colonial powers pillaged Iraqi sites of major finds to display in their museums during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, independent Iraq attempted to provide protection for the country’s rich heritage. President Saddam Hussein — an uneducated man who promoted education, the arts and Iraq’s history — invited foreign archaeologists to study Iraq’s past glories, deployed police to protect sites, and adopted a harsh line with looters.

Pillage began after the 1991 US war, when Baghdad was struggling to rebuild infrastructure bombed by the US and could not afford to protect archaeological sites. Professional smugglers set up shop in the country, anticipating unrest which would provide them with opportinities to ply their trade. As predicted by US archaeologists who had warned Washington against war, the 2003 US invasion and occupation was a bonanza for both opportunists and well-prepared professionals.   

An embarassing all-too public episode of pillage took place as soon as the US army entered Baghdad on April 9. On the 10th morning, while US tanks took up position along the broad avenue in front of the Iraq Museum, looters broke into the offices in the back and carried away computers, television sets, cameras and other equipment. Later in the day, they entered the galleries and began to steal and smash artefacts. The watchman, who remained at his post, approached the tanks and asked the soldiers manning them to halt the looting. Since they had no orders to protect the museum, they ignored the pillage taking place in front of their eyes. The looting went on during the 11th and 12th and tapered off when staff and guards returned on the 13th. Thieves continued to invade and snatch artefacts until the 16th. By then the international press reported the chaotic free-for-all.

Forty-two highly valuable artefacts were stolen from the galleries and thousands looted from the storerooms which were ransacked. On the 12th, while this was taking place, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quipped, “Stuff happens.”  Well, stuff has continued to happen since he made this remark. The US should not be given credit for repatriating treasures which would not have been stolen if there had been no invasion and occupation.

The Iraq Museum lost 16-19,000 pieces while many of the other 15 Iraqi museums sustained major losses. Explored excavations and undeveloped sites were stripped of their treasures by local farmers and villagers hired by smugglers and their agents; US soldiers, officials and contractors; and armed groups. Daesh cashed in to the tune of millions of dollars by doing business with black market traders in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Billions of dollars worth of antiquities, provided with false documents, were sold to foreign traders, ending up in public and private collections.

Having learnt nothing from the tragic experience of Iraq, regional and Western powers intervened in the civil conflict in neighbouring Syria, unleashing a fresh flow of looted anti- quities into the global trade.

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