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How the U.S., UAE and Israel plundered Iraq’s antiquities

Originally published: The Cradle on September 8, 2023 by Ahmed al-Rubaie (more by The Cradle)  | (Posted Sep 12, 2023)

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture recently announced a significant recovery of 23,000 artifacts, most of which were looted during the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This act was seen as an attempt to erase Iraq’s cultural identity. Yet often overlooked, the rich Iraqi Jewish Archive remains a contentious topic, with parts of it ending up in Tel Aviv before reaching other destinations.

On 10 April, 2003, weeks before the subsequent U.S. occupation, U.S. tanks surrounded the Iraqi Oil Ministry, the intelligence building, and the Iraqi National Museum. While U.S. forces were quick to secure the oil and intelligence buildings, the doors of the National Museum—founded in 1924 in Baghdad’s Al-Alawi area—were also left wide open for antiquities traffickers to pillage and vandalize its contents.

It was by no coincidence that U.S. forces established bases within crucial archaeological sites across Iraq, including Babylon dating back to 2300 BC, Ur from 3800 BC, Hatra, Nimrud, and others.

Speaking to The Cradle, Antiquities expert Haider Farhan says that:

The museum contains thousands of rare artifacts and manuscripts, but there are no official statistics on the number of antiquities stolen from the museum in 2003.

According to Farhan,

U.S. forces are directly and indirectly responsible for stealing the museum’s contents.

Anarchy and looting

Iraqi reports indicate that approximately 120,000 artifacts were looted and stolen from Iraq between 2003-2017, the bulk of which was during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while ISIS bears responsibility for stealing the possessions of the Mosul Museum in the north of the country, and some archaeological sites in the areas captured after 2014.

Director of the Iraqi Manuscripts Department and spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, Ahmed al-Alaywi, tells The Cradle that his ministry was able to “recover more than 23,000 artifacts within three years, 17,300 of which were recovered two years ago.”

The looting of the Iraqi Museum did not take place by chance; organized gangs, including individuals from neighboring Arab countries, took advantage of the chaos. These looters were familiar with the museum’s layout, its halls, and even the hidden storage rooms. Even the most secure spaces, such as a hidden room within the museum, were not spared from theft.

According to a former official at the National Museum,

There were organized gangs from Arab countries neighboring Iraq who stormed the museum, while the American forces in the courtyard of the museum turned a blind eye.

The museum official, who asked not to be named, informs The Cradle that “The looting continued for nearly three days.”

We had a secret room in the museum, in which we keep the precious antique ornaments, and when we returned on April 12, 2003 to the museum, we found that these ornaments had been stolen, even though that room had a hidden door.

The Emirati role

The museum official’s claim about the involvement of other Arab nationalities was confirmed by the former spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, Abd al-Zahra al-Talqani, who revealed in a statement in 2011 that “the looted Iraqi antiquities were smuggled to a neighboring country, and from there to America and Europe.”

Ministry spokesman Alayawi confirms to The Cradle that:

 The vast majority of the stolen antiquities from Iraq fled to one of the [Persian] Gulf countries and then to the United States, some of them through the theft of the National Museum, and others through the illegal exhumation of antiquities mafias that took place during the security chaos.

This was corroborated by an expert in Iraqi antiquities, Sundus Muhammad, who had accused, in press statements, the U.S. forces of “contributing to smuggling Iraqi antiquities out of the country, after controlling the antiquities of Babylon and Akkad, in agreement with the antiquities trafficking mafias.”

One of the most significant pieces of evidence implicating the UAE in smuggling Iraqi antiquities is the 2017 ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice against the American company “Hobby Lobby.” The company was fined $3 million, having illegally purchased 5,500 ancient Iraqi artifacts from dealers in the UAE, subsequently smuggling them to the U.S. and Israel using forged shipping documents.

At the time of the case, The Guardian reported that in September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae, an ancient form of inscribed identification, was received by Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that its country of origin was Israel.

After the U.S. invasion, Washington formed the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority and established control over key facilities in the country, including its airports, where smuggling of antiquities by local, Arab, and foreign individuals took place under their watch. U.S. forces contracted with a foreign security company to supervise flights, secure the entry and exit of travelers, and search their baggage.

An intelligence source who had worked at Baghdad Airport since 2004 and who requested that his name not be disclosed, explains to The Cradle that:

[U.S.] forces were in complete control of Baghdad Airport, and no goods could be transported to and from the airport except with the knowledge of the Americans, but they were turning a blind eye to local and Arab personalities.

Other sources speak of the involvement of the UAE in this cultural theft. The former commander of the protection company for Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, Muhammad Faisal al-Ghazi, admitted to transferring antiquities to the UAE, from where they were further smuggled to Israel.

In televised statements, Ghazi said,

On April 22, 2003, we went to the National Museum by order of Chalabi. We brought a group of antiquities, including a copy of the Babylonian Torah. Those antiquities were handed over to Tamara, Chalabi’s daughter. The talk was about protecting these antiquities until formation of the government, but this did not happen.

In May 2023, the spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Major General Yahya Rasool, announced the dismantling of an international network involved in smuggling antiquities from Babylon Governorate. Among the network members was an Arab national.

Rasool said in a statement seen by The Cradle  that:

Based on the tasks entrusted to the Iraqi National Intelligence Service in (Babylon) and within the framework of the work exerted to undermine external threats to Iraqi national security, the Intelligence Service was able to dismantle an international network comprised of four people, one of whom is an Arab, smuggling antiquities including three ancient manuscripts.

Shop Mesopotamian Civilization—online

Unsurprisingly, the illegal trade of Iraqi and other West Asian artifacts has proliferated online, with hundreds of pieces being sold for as little as $400 on various websites, including several on the dark web. This rampant online trade poses a significant threat to Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The “Live Auctioneers” and “Trocader” websites were among the sites that monitored some looted Iraqi artifacts, as these pieces became available for direct purchase by either individuals or companies.

Iraqi archaeologist Abd al-Amir al-Hamdani tells The Cradle that:

Selling Iraqi artifacts on websites at these low prices is a real catastrophe for researching a cultural heritage. The value of these artifacts is invaluable and cannot be the personal property of anyone, because they are the wealth and civilization of an entire people.

The Israeli connection

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official source in the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, reveals to The Cradle that “from 2003 until their departure in 2011, U.S. forces secured for Jewish [Israeli] excavation teams to excavate Iraqi archaeological sites, especially in Babylon and Ur.”

In 2010, Israeli Channel 7 reported on a Torah scroll that had been smuggled from Iraq to Tel Aviv. This raised questions about how such a rare piece ended up there, considering it was supposed to be maintained by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Until today, the controversy surrounding the Iraqi Jewish Archive remains. Despite an agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.S. for its return to Baghdad in 2014, the archive mysteriously ended up in Tel Aviv in 2015.

Various reports offer conflicting accounts of how it reached the U.S., with accusations against the Iraqi Memory Foundation for its involvement in handing the archive over to the Americans.

According to the writer and researcher Nabil al-Rubaie, the Jewish archive included 48 scrolls of passages from the Book of Genesis written on gazelle skin, calendars in Hebrew, 7002 books, and a group of sermons in Hebrew dating back to 1692.

It also included, according to Rubaie, 1,700 rare artifacts documenting the era of the first and second Babylonian captivity, the oldest copy of the Babylonian Talmud, the oldest copy of the Torah, and legal records dating back several centuries left by the Jews of Iraq, along with other valuables.

The Iraqi Memory Foundation, founded by Kanaan Makiya in 1992, has played a pivotal role in collecting Iraq’s archives, including documents from the Baath Party archive and Iraqi Kurdistan Database. Notably, former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi worked at the same institution.

In 2018, the director of the Iraqi Books and Documents House claimed that an officer from Iraq’s former intelligence service had approached opposition members after their return to Iraq, offering to reveal the location of the Jewish archive. This raised suspicions about the circumstances surrounding its discovery by U.S. forces.

Israel has never adhered to international agreements requiring the return of stolen antiquities. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to hold thousands of files from the Iraqi archives under the pretext of ‘restoration.’

The ongoing war against Iraq’s heritage

U.S. actions in Iraq have also had a devastating impact on its immense cultural heritage. In 1991, Ur came under heavy U.S. bombardment, causing significant damage to its ancient ziggurat.

During the 2003 invasion, the Nasiriyah Museum was turned into a military barracks, and the archaeological site of Kish was used as a training base, leading to the destruction of extensive archaeological areas.

Adding to Iraq’s woes, the rise of ISIS in 2014 resulted in the theft of collections from the Mosul Museum and the demolition of several archaeological sites. However, many sources suggest that ISIS staged these acts of destruction to divert attention from the actual looting of valuable artifacts. To date, the terrorist organization has sold hundreds of artifacts by smuggling them to Turkiye, and from there to Europe.

Iraq boasts over 15,000 archaeological sites, which have attracted the attention of antiquities traffickers since 2003. So far, Iraq has managed to recover 23,000 artifacts, primarily from the U.S. and Britain, despite these countries having robust border controls.

The cultural heritage of the “Land of the Two Rivers” has faced continuous threats, with various parties, namely the U.S., Israel, and the UAE, playing key roles in its theft and destruction. The recovery of artifacts is an ongoing struggle, and the international community must step up to prevent further loss and facilitate the return of stolen items to their rightful place in Iraq’s rich history.

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