Baghdad museum treasures still locked from view

Sun Oct 5, 2008 3:58am EDT
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By Aseel Kami and Mohammed Abbas

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - In Iraq's national museum a frieze shows Assyrian King Sargon II, who ruled an empire from what is now northern Iraq, storming a rampart as soldiers pile decapitated heads before him.

The magnificent stone reliefs -- from the palace of a ruler who plundered cities -- themselves fell prey to looters and vandals some 2,700 years later, when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq left the museum open to unchecked theft.

Violence has fallen to around four-year lows across the country in recent months and artifacts are trickling back -- about 6,000 have been returned of the 15,000 or so that went missing in a few days in 2003.

But Iraqi authorities are taking no chances, and will not re-open the museum until security is assured.

"We cannot risk displaying the treasures we have unless we have guarantees that security is 100 percent stable in Baghdad and the area surrounding the museum," Amira Eidan, director of Iraq's antiquities and museums, told Reuters.

What is now Iraq was home to empires that rose and fell over thousands of years in Mesopotamia, a cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

One of the world's greatest collections of Mesopotamian treasures has remained largely locked away since the invasion, when television footage showed ragged Iraqis carting off whatever they could find.

"It was considered one of the most horrible cultural crimes in recent history," Eidan said. The Americans guarded the oil ministry but not the museum. The then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to it was: "Stuff happens."   Continued...

<p>An Assyrian statue (C) and two Assyrian human headed winged bulls are seen displayed at the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad September 24, 2008. In Iraq's national museum, a frieze shows an Assyrian king, whose former capital is now in modern Iraq, besieging what looks like a walled town as soldiers pile decapitated heads at his feet. Picture taken September 24, 2008. REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz</p>