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Sun 29 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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Looters reap havoc on Iraqi treasures

The cultural treasures of Iraq — the birthplace of writing, codified law, mathematics, medicine and astronomy — are being obliterated as looters take advantage of the country’s bloody chaos.

The cultural treasures of Iraq — the birthplace of writing, codified law, mathematics, medicine and astronomy — are being obliterated as looters take advantage of the country’s bloody chaos.

Fourteen of the world’s leading archaeologists have written to the President and Prime Minister of the country, demanding immediate action to stem the vandalism after seeing photographs of sites left pockmarked by enormous craters.

Among examples in the letter was a Babylonian sculpture of a lion dating from about 1700BC that lost its head because the terracotta shattered as looters tried to remove it.

Another was the destruction of the Ana Minaret on the Euphrates about 190 miles (310km) west of Baghdad, revered for 1,000 years as a unique construction. It was blown up by Islamic extremists apparently for fear that it would be used as an American observation post.

In 1986 the minaret, an 85ft (26m) stone structure dating from the 6th century, was threatened by the waters of the al-Qadisiya dam project. Saddam Hussein ordered his military to dismantle it and transport it in 18 sections to a new site on a plateau above the lake.

The archaeologists say that the unparalleled heritage, especially that of ancient Mesopotamia, must be saved. The land — the site of the cities of Ur, Babylon and Nineveh — is the cradle of modern civilisation.

“As individuals who have done research for years in Iraq, who have taught its great history and culture, and who have made great efforts to call attention to the potential and real damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage due to war and its aftermath, we ask you to ensure the safety of the museums, archaeological sites, and standing monuments in the entire country,” the letter says.

About 90% of Iraq’s archaeological sites are still underground and a wealth of temples and palaces that have yet to be excavated are being targeted by looters.

Digging several metres below ground, they are leaving a landscape that has been likened to the surface of the Moon. The signatories include McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the University of Chicago; Robert MC. Adams, Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, and Leon DeMeyer, Rector Emeritus at the University of Ghent, in Belgium.

They are calling for the Antiquities Guards, who were recruited and trained to protect the ancient sites in the countryside, to be kept as a force and increased in number.

The archaeologists have learnt that the guards were no longer being paid.

They are also calling for the holdings of the Iraq National Museum to be kept intact. There are fears that the antiquities could be split up if the country is partitioned.

Professor Gibson said that damage done to the great cities of Sumer and Babylon had been “very extensive”. The city of Larsa — a Babylonian capital from about 1900-1800BC — bears tracks from diggers that are being used to scrape up the site and carry the dirt to the side where it is sifted for objects. The city of Isin — a capital from 2000-1900BC — has been pitted, some holes going as deep as 10 metres (33ft), and there are tunnels running out from the pits.

Professor Gibson said: “This damage is so severe that archaeologists may never return to the site.”

Other important cities that have been extensively damaged include Umma, Zabalam, Adab, Shuruppak and Umm al-Hafriyat.

“All of these are important for the history and culture of the Sumerians and Babylonians,” he said.

Precisely where the looted antiquities are going remains a mystery, although some objects are known to have been offered to wealthy collectors in the Gulf and the Far East.

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