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18 September 2014
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Return to the Iraq Museum: The Cost of War

By Dan Cruickshank
Interpretation of events

The vast importance of Iraq's cultural heritage was well recognised by the coalition forces, and they had been instructed to avoid damage to Iraq's cultural institutions - so the finger of blame was speedily pointed at the US forces who had captured Baghdad. Iraqi museum officials led the cry of accusation, and their stories soon appeared in the media.

'since last November three bunkers had been dug in the museum garden'

The basic facts are not in dispute, but the implications of these facts can be read in significantly different ways. What is sure is that at 11am on 8 April Dr George, Dr Jaber Khalil Ibrahim (the head of the museum) and Dr Nawala al-Mutawalli (the curator in charge of its collections) locked the museum and fled, because, said Dr George, they realised the museum could become the scene of fighting as the US tanks advanced.

When asked why a recognised cultural site should become a battleground, Dr George said Iraqi militia were running for cover in the museum grounds - although this was not, he insisted, part of a prepared plan, as the museum was not a prepared military position. Although I could see that since last November three bunkers had been dug in the museum garden, sandbagged firing posts had been built in the grounds, and various shallow pits excavated which looked like locations for mortars, Dr George insisted these were all part of the museum's air-raid precautions.

Fighting did indeed take place around the museum, but by the end of 9 April the museum, and the entire quarter of Baghdad where it stood, was under US control. On 10 April the US tanks moved on and the museum was abandoned to its fate. What happened during the next three days is hotly debated, but it seems clear it was entered and items were stolen. Dr George claims that on 11 April he pleaded with the US Army to return to the museum, but they did not. By 13 April, museum staff had returned to the museum and regained limited control, and on 16 April the US Army finally posted guards at the museum.

Published: 2003-06-09

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