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BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) - In the ancient city of Babylon, once home to the fabled Hanging Gardens, an extended oil pipeline has churned through the dirt and dug up a conundrum: which takes precedence, preserving Iraq's heritage or developing its oil wealth?
The definitive answer will probably be decades coming. But for the moment, oil appears to have the edge.
The site of ancient Mesopotamia, said by some to be the birthplace of writing, agriculture and written law, Iraq holds many keys to the history of civilization. It's a point of pride for Iraqis, but so are the riches it earns from oil.
Mariam Omran Musa, who manages the Babylon site for the State Board of Heritage and Antiquities, lobbied hard for the Babylon pipeline to be redirected, but failed and is now suing the ministry.
The oil ministry insists it worked at a painstakingly slow pace so as to protect any undiscovered treasures, and kept to the area between the outer and inner fences of the site.
It has since promised to shift the pipeline's route away from Babylon once it finds a new route, which even oil experts find hard to believe now the pipe has been laid.
"Oil and antiquities are both national wealth, but I have an opinion: when the oil is gone, we will still have antiquities," Musa told Reuters as she stood near the buried pipeline, the tracks of construction vehicles still visible.
"This is a violation against antiquities because even a heavy vehicle driving here is considered a breach, let alone extending a pipeline."
Heritage experts are now shifting their attention to other locations, hoping to classify and protect an estimated 20,000 sites before they are damaged by government agencies trying to rebuild an economy ravaged by years of war and sanctions.
So far, about 12,000 archaeological sites have been discovered - some 700 in Baghdad alone - but heritage officials say they are exposed to regular damaging incursions.
Nuri Kadhim, head of the Baghdad Antiquities department, is not optimistic that the government will give the issue the attention it deserves given its other priorities.
"The state's projects will not stop. On the contrary they are increasing," he told Reuters. "I expect many violations to take place unless there is an instruction from the government to demand agreements (with the heritage board) before starting these projects."
The oil ministry says that the pipeline projects are essential to advance the country's goal of becoming a global oil superpower, alongside Saudi Arabia and Russia.
While many experts say that goal is too ambitious, Iraq is still expected to be the biggest source of new oil in the world over the next few years.
The Babylon pipeline, which comes into service in June, aims to supplement two pipelines into Baghdad that are old and in poor condition.
The pipeline carries around 45,000 barrels of fuel per day from Basra in the south to the capital for domestic consumption.
For Iraqis like Baghdad-based oil analyst Hamza al-Jawahiri, rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure is just too important to be held up by archaeologists in a country covered in ancient sites.
"I believe these (campaigns) can hinder development," Jawahiri said. "Besides, all of Iraq contains antiquities. Does that mean we should stop rebuilding?"
The sheer number and ubiquitousness of sites is a daunting issue for archaeologists, too.
Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the State Board of Heritage and Antiquities, said the board needed 17,000 more guards and 750 antiquarians as well as an "army" of legal staff to fend off oil and other investment projects.
"We have antiquities in every village, every town. That puts us on the constant defensive when facing the ignorance we sometimes find among people and with investment projects," Rasheed told Reuters.
"The ancient sites in Iraq suffer from different kinds of violations because of weak protection, lack of support (from the government) and the retreat of this sector in the state's priorities," he said.
The ministry says that it asked the heritage board to help it with the pipeline but the board refused.
"Definitely we are keen to preserve antiquities but when an oil crisis erupts who would be held responsible? The board of heritage and antiquities? These are projects of national interest," said oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad.
Kadhim of Baghdad Antiquities reluctantly admits the very richness of the country's heritage may be part of the problem.
"Sometimes a person has so many shirts and trousers he does not take care of them," he said. "When he has only one shirt he will wash it and iron it very carefully."
Editing by Barry Malone and Sonya Hepinstall