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IRAQ: National Museum reopens, sort of

February 23, 2009 | 10:57 am

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Perhaps no event generated as much rage among regular Iraqis toward the United States in the early days of the war as the ransacking of Baghdad's National Museum, where looters fled with ancient artifacts as well as modern air conditioners while security collapsed in the spring of 2003. Today, with security greatly improved and thousands of stolen items returned to the museum, the treasure trove is preparing to reopen.

This being Iraq, where protocol and ceremony must be observed, the museum's doors could not simply be flung open to the public. Instead, dignitaries led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki were given a personal tour of the museum Monday as a run-up to the public opening. This being Iraq, the event also was not without controversy.

The ministries of culture and of tourism disagreed on when the museum should open, with tourism officials urging a gala event and culture officials insisting security remains too tenuous for such a thing. For awhile, it looked like Monday's special showing would not happen at all, but in the end, the compromise of a VIP-only opening limited to a few of the museum's 20-plus halls was reached. There also were disputes between Iraqi media invited to attend the event and guards who did not let them enter the museum with Maliki's entourage. An Iraqi media organization complained later about the treatment and said an Iraqi TV news cameraman was hit by museum guards.

Still, Monday's event was a huge step for a place that in 2003 was swarming with looters who smashed its windows and glass display cases and dashed down the street with anything they could grab. U.S. troops were not protecting the site, which sparked a cavalcade of accusations from museum officials and antiquities lovers the world over that the Americans had neither the good taste nor sense to guard the country's premier center for ancient artifacts.

Later, it emerged that the losses were not as dramatic as originally feared and that many of the priceless items initially feared stolen were in safekeeping in a vault beneath the Central Bank and other hiding places. "If you saw people running out of there with air conditioners and other things and saw the mess inside, you'd assume everything had been stolen," said Steve Mocsary, a U.S. Customs agent , in May 2003. Mocsary had been sent to Iraq and led the painstaking search through museum inventories to determine what was missing and what was safely stashed elsewhere.

Many items were too heavy for anyone to steal: the 38-ton, five-legged bulls dating to 722 BC; clay tablets from 3,000 BC; basalt columns; marble statues. The floors at that time had been lined with sandbags to protect the works from flying debris. On Monday, the bulls, columns and priceless statues remained, but the floors were gleaming beneath new lighting positioned to best display Iraq's heritage.

The state minister for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan Juboori, thanked foreign countries for helping Iraq to recover much of its lost loot. Of about 15,000 pieces stolen from the museum, he said 6,000 had been returned. They included 2,466 items brought back from Jordan, 1,046 from the United States and 701 from Syria, Juboori said.

The prime minister referred to the days of looting and chaos as a "black wind" that had swept through Iraq. "One of its effects was to destroy this museum," Maliki said, "but we stopped this black wind and became capable of rebuilding it."

As for when the rest of Iraq will be able to see the museum, that's unclear. Iraqi guards Monday afternoon told journalists it would be a couple of months.

-- Times staff writers

Photo: National Museum director Amira Eidan, second from right, talks to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, center, and other Iraqi officials during a tour of the museum Feb. 23 in Baghdad. Credit: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

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