US to blame for Arab disaster

US to blame for Arab disaster

The first wave of pillage came on the heels of US invasion of Iraq. A second wave is taking place now.

When George W Bush went to war against Iraq, he ignored the warnings of scholars who study the civilisations of Mesopotamia, the land of the two rivers and the great Arab empires, that his crusade could destroy archaeological sites, museums and monuments belonging to all mankind. He ignored these warnings and now West Asian civilisation is on the brink of catastrophe.

The first wave of pillage and destruction came on the heels of the US invasion of Iraq and continued uninterrupted with amateur and professional looters despoiling sites while harvesting antiquities to sell on the international black market. The second wave of desecration, demolition and pillage is taking place now in both Iraq and Syria due to conflicts initiated and sustained by the West and its Arab allies.

Early this month Islamic State (IS) fighters based in Iraq bulldozed Nimrud, the 9th century BC capital of the ancient Assyrian empire; the Assyrian city of Dur Sharrukin dating from the same period; and the 2,000 year old Hellenistic-Parthian-Roman site of Hatra.

Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani, who visited Nimrud last year, told Deccan Herald there were statues of “at least five winged bulls,” symbols of Assyria, and magnificent stone carvings in the remains of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II. “It was the royal palace of the king who ruled the known world.”

An associate fellow at the London-based Institute of Archaeology, Gailani condemned the destruction by IS fighters wielding sledge hammers and drills of stone figures in the Mosul museum which has been looted and artefacts sold. She pointed out that IS has also destroyed Islamic and Christian monuments.

She blames Bush whose invasion unleashed al-Qaeda on Iraq and led to the rise of IS in both her homeland and Syria. She praised the Syrian antiquities department for doing a better job of protecting and preserving the country's cultural heritage than its Iraqi counterpart.

Having seen what happened in Iraq after Bush's war, the Syrians have tried to counter the pillage of provincial museums by shifting 300,000 moveable treasures and 1,000 Ottoman manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries to safe storage sites in Damascus and enlisting local communities to protect vulnerable archaeological sites.

During an interview in his office in the Damascus museum, antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim said “99 per cent”of Syria’s museums are safe so far and his colleagues are in daily contact with the department’s 2,500 employees who have risked their lives and the lives of family members to remain on the job.

He described a dramatic rescue of 13,000 artefacts took place in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor in June 2014 after IS captured the Iraqi city of Mosul. “This was very dangerous because our employees could have been killed [by IS] and I could have been put in prison” for undertaking such a risky venture. The objects were taken out of storage locations, moved to a military airbase and put onto aircraft flying the bodies of soldiers killed in battle back to the capital.

Secret storage

“Our employees accompanied the items. They have all been labelled and photographed and placed in secret and secure storage in Damascus rather than at the museum” which has been closed to the public since the war began although the museum garden remains open.

He said proudly that department employees have taken custody from the army of the vast 11th century Crusader fortress of Crac des Chevaliers, one of Syria's six UNESCO world heritage sites. Mines and munitions have been cleared and repairs have begun. The castle was seized by insurgents in 2012 and recaptured by the Syrian army in 2014. Sites damaged in fighting like the fortress can be restored, “but sites that are bulldozed are gone forever.”

The global powers refused to acknowledge the IS threat until it seized Mosul. This has given IS, other insurgent groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and professional “mafias” more than three years to loot Syria's archaeological sites.

He castigated the international community for failing to close frontiers to the illicit trade in antiquities and criticised governments imposing sanctions on Syria. “The embargo attacks all sectors of society not only the government.” Sanctions have starved the antiquities department of funds and prompted governments to shun the department.

If UNESCO, related cultural bodies, and foreign archaeologists who had worked in Syria for decades had not maintained relations, “We would have been isolated and had no support.”

The situation began to improve “over the past six months when Germany changed and began to give us support in training and research.” Italy, France and Japan have also re-established contact.

In spite of recent improvements, he warned, “If the international community does not change its approach there will be a disaster in the region – in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen... and in Afghanistan and Mali.”
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