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Scholars Decry Iraqi Looting

Tuesday April 15, 2003

As the world watched, spellbound, the spectacle of massive looting in the cities of Iraq, the tragedy proved particularly wrenching for those whose lives have been devoted to the study of the ancient land considered the cradle of Western culture. Hardest to bear were scenes of looting at Baghdad’s Iraqi National Museum, until Friday home to one of the world’s greatest collections of antiquities.  

In response, David Stronach, a UC Berkeley professor of Near Eastern studies, has called a public meeting for Wednesday to address the war’s impact on Iraq’s rich archaeological heritage. He and two colleagues will discuss topics ranging from artifacts lost in the last Gulf War to the more recent thefts and other sites still in danger.  

Stronach called the loss a tragedy. “It was one of the great museums of the world,” he said. Before arriving in Berkeley in 1981, Stronach served as director of the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran, Iran. 

The tragedy strikes closer to home for Abbas Kadhim, a UC Berkeley instructor in American history and a doctoral student in Islamic studies, a native of Mosul who first visited the Baghdad museum on a school field trip and returned each time he returned to his homeland. 

“They say it isn’t about oil, but of all the sites in Iraq, the two places in Baghdad [American] military commanders chose to protect with troops and tanks were the Ministry of Oil and the Al-dowra oil refinery,” Kadhim said. 

“Was it too much to ask to send one tank and a few soldiers to protect the Museum of Antiquities? Now 7,000 years of history have been scattered across the country and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts turning up on the black market.” 

Stronach said ancient cuneiform tablets appeared on the international art market after the first Gulf War, and he expects more of the same in the wake of last week’s looting. 

Though American law bars the import of artifacts looted from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites, well-connected lobbyists for art dealers and museums have been pushing the Bush administration to relax both U.S. law and the Iraqi regulations banning the export of that nation’s antiquities. 

A group calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) met with State and Defense Department officials shortly before the war, and the changes they urge would be “absolutely monstrous,” Cambridge University professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn told the Glasgow Herald. 

Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, concurred, telling the Scottish paper the ACCP’s proposals would have a disastrous impact on the world’s archaeological heritage. 

The session begins Wednesday at 5 p.m. at 2547 Channing Way. Stronach will discuss Iraq’s archaeological heritage and the impact of recent events.  

Marian Feldman, professor of archaeology and art history, will discuss endangered sites in Southern Iraq and artifacts lost in the museum looting. 

Neik Veldhuis, professor of Assyriology, will talk about looted artifacts from the last Gulf War and the impact of the loss of written records from the Baghdad museum.