Rare Look Inside Baghdad Museum

(See related news from minute 2.44)

Article by: Cara Buckley at The New York Times (December 12, 2007)

BAGHDAD — For a few brief hours Tuesday, three dozen spectators — journalists, local politicians and their guards — gathered at the National Museum of Iraqhere, their voices echoing through its vast, darkened halls. It was one of the few times outsiders had been allowed inside since Baghdad fell, looters stripped the galleries of some 15,000 Mesopotamian artifacts, and the museum became a wrenching symbol of the losses of the war.Aside from a brief opening in late 2003, when officials and other guests were invited in, the museum has been shuttered since the invasion. But there has been a great push to reopen it of late. Its directors have managed to recover 4,000 missing pieces, among them gems, Islamic coins and carved stones. The pace of recovery picked up as word spread that rewards were offered for items returned.Still, the executive director, Amira Eidan, said Tuesday that she could not forecast when the museum might reopen again because restoration efforts had been slowed by insufficient financing. The cost of recovering the artifacts has consumed the bulk of her museum’s budget, and pieces sometimes have turned up at foreign auctions and been too expensive or difficult to retrieve, she said.

The museum still houses hulking centuries-old statues and intricately patterned stone panels, items too heavy for plunderers to haul off. Its most valued items, including pieces of Assyrian gold known as the Nimrud treasures, were saved because they had been sealed in crates and locked in a bank vault.

Yet on Tuesday, much of the museum’s collection remained out of sight. Many of the ancient heavy stone statues were covered in plastic. Dozens of glass display cases sat empty but for thick layers of dust. Workers were mixing epoxy in one gallery, the Assyrian Hall, where walls were lined with great stone bas-relief and little else. The 4,000 pieces that have so far been recovered remained in the museum’s underground vaults.

Ms. Eidan, who had recently said that two halls of the museum would reopen this month, said Tuesday that even if the museum was fully restored, she was not certain that the city was stable enough to ensure a safe reopening. She also lamented the illegal digging that continues at Baghdad’s 12,000 largely unguarded archaeological sites. According to Abdul Zahra al-Taliqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, thieves have stolen, and likely trafficked, 17,000 pieces from these sites so far.

American forces have been widely faulted for failing to protect the museum as pillaging swept Baghdad after the invasion. Concern over the museum’s fate peaked again in August 2006, when the museum’s director, Donny George, resigned and left Iraq, saying he had been threatened by extremists with ties to the Shiite-led government.

The museum visit on Tuesday, a media event, was organized by Ahmad Chalabi, the Shiite politician and former exile leader who helped shape the Pentagon’s case for war. By organizing the visit, Mr. Chalabi sought to highlight the museum’s restoration efforts and insert himself in the recovery process. Before a row of photographers and cameramen, he presented the museum’s director with some 400 missing artifacts that he had procured through a friend.

“We need help from international experts,” he told Ms. Eidan. “We have so many more missing pieces, we need to do active search to get them back.”

In violence in Baghdad on Tuesday, two policemen were killed when a car bomb exploded near security booths guarding the homes of Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, and Saleh al-Mutlak, a member of Parliament.

Mr. Mutlak is the head of the Sunni-Arab party, the National Dialogue Front. Twelve policemen and guards were wounded, though neither Mr. Allawi nor Mr. Mutlak was hurt.

Video: Mosaic, April 14, 2003

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