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Baghdad museum’s sad fate ‘bleeds my heart’

Times Staff Writer

A sleekly genteel museum auditorium in Santa Ana filled with shocked gasps and sorrowful groans as Donny George Youkhanna, director of Baghdad’s antiquities museum during the first three years of the Iraq war, described, blow by blow, the robbing of the cradle of civilization.

“To have the museum hurt in this way, it bleeds my heart,” George said in a quiet, even voice during the opening moments of his talk and slide presentation Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Among the images worth a thousand sad words were before-and-after photographs of statuary that had been pulverized or beheaded. And there were numerous “before” photos with no “after” standing in for some of the 7,500 or objects still missing from the museum -- most of them small items such as coins and cylindrical seals used to press imprints into clay tablets.

The huge projections on the auditorium’s screen during George’s 75-minute talk included views of an almost perfectly round hole left by American tank gunners above the entry arch of the Iraq Museum’s children’s wing. George said the gunners had returned the fire of Iraqis who had taken up positions on the museum’s rooftop during the U.S. ground assault to capture Baghdad in April 2003. An image from last January showed the same building, hole-free, but with one wall now marred by huge bloodstains -- part of the spatter-pattern from a car bombing in the street below.

George, a stocky, graying man who speaks English fluently, is a war refugee who has landed at Stony Brook University in New York, where he is a visiting professor of anthropology. He told of how, in short order during 2006, he was stripped of his authority and forced to resign because “this institution should not be led by a Christian, it should be led by a Shiite Muslim.” Simply living in Iraq soon became untenable. His 17-year-old son received a death threat -- an envelope containing a bullet and a message that accused the youth of “cursing Islam, teasing Muslim girls” and having a father who was helping the Americans.

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George said that during the American ground assault on Baghdad, he and a colleague who had been baby-sitting the Iraq Museum were forced to leave for three days. When they returned, its interior looked “as if it had been hit by a hurricane.”

Initial media reports said the museum had been utterly ransacked, with 170,000 objects stolen or destroyed, but the truth was closer to 15,000. Many priceless collections, including the fabled Treasures of Nimrud, a horde of exquisitely wrought gold and jewelry, had long been secured in Iraq’s Central Bank. Still, an investigation-and-recovery task force led by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos found that looters who knew what they were looking for -- and probably gained entry with help from somebody with inside knowledge -- had made off with 40 prime objects on display in the galleries and more than 10,500 items that had been secreted in a basement storeroom.

Other looters swept more randomly through the most accessible storage areas, according to “The Casualties of War: The Truth About the Iraq Museum,” an article Bogdanos published in 2005 in the American Journal of Archaeology.

According to Bogdanos’ account, mobs vented their full fury on the administrative wing, but were far less destructive in the galleries, where only 28 of 451 glass display cases were smashed. Bogdanos speculated that they distinguished between the public halls that housed their common heritage, and the offices that they felt harbored minions of “a brutal regime.”

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Developments became more upbeat, George said, as some Iraqis responded to a no-questions-asked amnesty policy for the return of looted antiquities. Two men, he said, came forward and said they had snatched an important statue of the Assyrian King Shalmanezer III because they wanted to preserve it from looters, not sell it on the black market. “This is an example of good Iraqis who looked after the antiquities,” George said. “But of course, there are the others.”

Stepped-up enforcement has helped: Last year U.S. customs officials seized a headless, inscribed black statue of Sumerian King Entemena. The 4,400-year-old artifact from Ur is now at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Speaking with reporters before his talk, George said he does not think it’s appropriate to start developing plans for a worst-case scenario in which violence and chaos become so rampant that Iraqi antiquities would need to be spirited out of the country. Such talk, he said, would only feed suspicions that America wants to loot Iraq. At the same time, George said later, it’s prudent to leave recovered items such as the statue of Entemena overseas for safekeeping. The Iraq Museum has been closed since the war began, except for a symbolic, two-hour showing in July 2003 of gold artifacts from the Tut-like Nimrud find. In 2006, after 50 people were abducted in the street outside the museum, George said he realized nothing could stop an armed band of antiquities thieves. So he finished the job of sealing and walling off all doors, begun during a tense period in 2004. A questioner wondered whether leaving objects untended and inaccessible might not make them vulnerable to mold and other damage caused by neglect.

“You’re absolutely right,” George answered. “But it’s better than losing them completely.”

More vulnerable still, he said, are more than 12,500 registered dig sites, defended from looters by security crews that don’t have the manpower or the equipment to protect them completely. Since the war broke out, George said, nearly 17,000 artifacts have been brought from these locations to the Iraq Museum for safekeeping.

Many thousands more, he suggested, have left the country, intended for a black market of collectors whose consciences can abide exploiting a national tragedy. He was at the Bowers, he said, in hopes that recounting the Iraq Museum’s catastrophe could help raise awareness about the stolen antiquities trade.

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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