Three years have now passed since thieves looted the Iraqi National
Museum in Baghdad following the American invasion. Nearly 15,000 objects of
inestimable scientific and cultural value were stolen, although initial figures
were over 10 times that number.
Iraq, called in ancient times Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers,
developed some of the world’s first complex, class-divided societies.
The early peoples of Iraq were among the first to build cities and to write.
The National Museum contained many of the material remnants of these and later
cultures and some of the greatest examples of their art.
There was an international outcry, and the United States military, groping
to set right a public relations disaster, sent in Marine Reserve Col. Matthew
Bogdanos, in civilian life a Manhattan assistant district attorney, to conduct
an investigation. He was assisted by a team drawn from various military services
as well as by the staff of the museum itself.
Bogdanos has published his findings in several journals and in his book, Thieves
of Baghdad.  A more detailed account appeared in the
prestigious American Journal of Archaeology (AJA) last summer. 
The results of his investigation are limited to what looters stole and how
and when they probably stole it. When Bogdanos touches on the role of American
forces in the area at the time, he raises more questions than he answers. Although
he says the military could have done more to protect the museum, he fails to
More significantly, Bogdanos defends the invasion. He is neither able nor inclined
to investigate those responsible for putting the museum in jeopardy in the first
place: the architects of the illegal assault on Iraq.
In fact, Bogdanos’s findings serve as an attempt by the Bush administration
to placate critics, particularly in academic circles. This, and the reclaiming
of roughly 5,000 stolen objects though amnesties, raids and interdiction at
borders, has provided, the administration hopes, a necessary dénouement
to one of the great episodes of cultural vandalism of the twenty-first century.
In November, President Bush awarded Colonel Bogdanos a National Humanities
Medal. Since then, he has become something of a public figure. He has gone on
tour promoting his book in talks sponsored by various institutions and groups.
In December, he penned an op-ed in the New York Times deploring the sale of
stolen antiquities, because the profits can be used to fund the Iraqi insurgency.
Most recently, he has been made the chief of a special unit in the Manhattan
DA’s office to investigate art and antiquity theft.
What the investigation shows
Bogdanos’s team, some of whom were policemen in civilian life, inspected
administrative offices, restoration rooms, public galleries and storage rooms
over five weeks after April 2003. The team concluded that there were three separate
thefts from the museum on April 8-12 by three different groups.
Over 120 administrative offices were completely ransacked and their contents
destroyed, as were the restoration rooms nearby. Across a long corridor lay
the public galleries. Bogdanos remarks on the unusual restraint shown in the
damage to the public galleries. Although most of the display cases had been
emptied by the staff prior to the American invasion, only 28 of the 451 display
cases were damaged. Twenty-five objects were damaged, including the remains
of the Golden Harp of Ur.
Nevertheless, over 40 objects of considerable value were stolen from the public
galleries and from nearby restoration rooms. These were all removed selectively
and required some knowledge of their importance: they included the Mask of Warka,
the Lioness Killing the Nubian, and artifacts from the Royal Burials at Ur.
Two of the three aboveground storage rooms were looted. Their steel doors,
Bogdanos notes, showed no signs of being forced; those who entered must have
had access to the correct keys.
By the end of December 2003, Bogdanos’s team had determined that over
3,000 items had been stolen from these rooms. Here the looting was indiscriminate.
Almost of all of the items recovered during an amnesty came from this area of
The looting in a third area of the museum, the basement storage rooms, appears
to have been an inside job. Bogdanos discovered that the steel doors here were
also unlocked and again showed no sign of forced entry.
Three of the four rooms here were unplundered, but in the corner of the fourth,
fishing-tackle boxes that had contained excavated jewelry, cylinder seals, beads
and the like were emptied. Nearby boxes of less valuable material had not been
touched. Bogdanos concluded that the thieves had some knowledge of the contents
of this room.
It appears that the thieves came unprepared and had to depend on burning packing
foam to see around the room. They dropped keys in the dark (electricity was
not functioning), and thus missed, apparently, discovering cabinets containing
silver and gold coins from the Greek, Roman and early Arab periods of Iraqi
history as well as valuable cylinder seals.
The thieves, however, did make off with many other cylinder seals and other
priceless objects. As Bogdanos observes, the cylinder seals (small clay cylinders
used in the early class societies of Mesopotamia to mark ownership on goods
sealed with clay) had come not from the open market, but from archaeological
expeditions, where their context had been documented, enabling a much more rigorous
scientific study of their dates and cultural origins.
The last published estimate has been that the thieves took over 5,000 cylinder
seals and over 5,500 glass bottles, and pieces of jewelry.
People with some knowledge of the holdings committed two of the three thefts,
one in the public galleries and one in the basement storage area. Most of these
objects were intended for the international antiquities market. Some of the
major pieces, such as the Vase of Warka, were returned. Iraqi, American or other
international forces have seized some.
Of the third area, the aboveground storage areas robbed by ordinary Iraqis
enraged at the Baathist regime, over 3,000 of the estimated 3,138 stolen objects
have been returned.
What was the American responsibility?
From a political point of view, Bogdanos’s AJA article and the final
chapters of Thieves of Baghdad represent an apologia for the American
role in the looting.
He presents a selective sequence of events from April 8, after the American
invasion of Baghdad, up until April 16, 2003, the day the museum was guarded
by American troops. He asks if American troops in the area could have done more
to protect the museum. He implies that the answer is no.
According to Bogdanos, on April 8 the staff left the premises of the museum
at 11 a.m., when Iraqi troops took up positions. Donny George, a director of
the museum, attempted to return there at 3 p.m., but was unable due to heavy
fighting in the area.
On April 9, an American tank company, the 3rd Infantry Division Task Force
1-64, moved to within 500 meters and began taking fire from three of the four
buildings in the museum compound.
The commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz, estimated that 100-150 Iraqi
soldiers were inside, armed with AK-47s and RPGs. Tanks fired a round at the
2nd floor storage room of the main museum building and at a position on the
roof of one of the buildings. Bogdanos notes that Schwartz contacted his superiors
before doing so.
Bogdanos defends the American action on the basis of international law. He
cites not only Geneva Convention protocols but also those from the Hague Convention
for the Preservation of Cultural Property in Time of War, which states that
designated cultural property is to be immune from military conflict in time
of war. The United States has never ratified the Hague Convention, but the Joint
Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended adherence in 1995.
From a technical point of view, Bogdanos is correct. Both the Geneva Conventions
and the Hague Convention prohibit the use of cultural property by defenders
But there is something ludicrous and grotesque in an American colonel speaking
of the transgressions of the laws of war by a small, nearly defenseless nation
during the illegal invasion by the world’s leading military power.
Article 11 of this Hague convention is specific about the obligation of the
aggressor in withdrawing immunity from a cultural area that has been occupied
by enemy forces. “Wherever possible, [the attacker] shall first request
the cessation of such violation within a reasonable amount of time” and
“immunity shall be withdrawn from cultural property under special protection
only in exceptional cases of unavoidable military necessity, and only for such
time as that necessity continues. Such necessity can only be established by
the officer commanding a force the equivalent of a division in size or larger.
Whenever circumstances permit, the opposing party [in this case, the Iraqi military
occupying the museum] shall be notified a reasonable time in advance, of the
decision to withdraw immunity.” 
Bogdanos produces no evidence that the American forces attempted to contact
the Iraqi military, or any that Lt. Col Schwartz’s superiors took the
Hague Convention into consideration. In a Wall Street Journal interview
on April 17, 2003 (cited by Bogdanos), Schwartz indicates that he stopped attacking
positions at the museum on his own authority.
Bogdanos’s analysis also fails to account for several factors, some of
which were indicated in reports that he cites in his AJA article.
* The Guardian of April 14, 2003 reports that Abdul Rehman Mugeer,
a senior museum guard, told reporters that four American tanks was initially
placed in front of the museum on Wednesday, April 9, and then withdrawn. Mugeer
said that American tanks briefly returned on Friday April 11, causing the
looters to flee. They returned once the Americans were gone
* Bogdanos notes that a stationary tank in heavy fighting is a target, and
so could not be placed in front of the museum. Does this mean that on April
10 the area near the museum was secure?
* George, the museum director, said in an interview with the Guardian on
May 2, 2003 that upon hearing about the looting on Saturday, April 12, he
went the next day to the Marine headquarters at the Palestine Hotel. He spoke
to a Marine civil affairs officer, Col. P.A. Zarcone, who assured him that
the museum would be protected and indicated that American forces might be
there before George returned to the museum later that day. In fact, it was
three days before American troops came to protect the museum.
What was the administration’s policy?
“Frankly,” Bogdanos says, “those who argue that US forces
should have done more to protect the museum present a compelling argument.”
“Why then,” he asks, “did US forces not protect [the museum]
... between the time it was arguably safe to do so (whether on the evening of
the 10th or the forenoon of the 11th) and the time the staff returned on the
afternoon of 12 April?” Bogdanos adds, “The more pointed question
is why no unit before the battle had been given the specific mission of protecting
the museum from looting after Baghdad was secure.”
Bogdanos has some answers. He suggests that the speed of the battle “outstripped
the ability of Coalition planners to plan for the security needs of a city the
size of Baghdad.” He also argues that the war’s planners did not
realize the danger of looting because of the museum’s identification with
And yet, as his own investigation has pointed out, two of the three episodes
of theft were not from those looters who identified the museum with Baathism,
but from criminals motivated by profit.
In fact, the government was warned about the danger of looting to archaeological
sites. In the Washington Post of April 14, 2003, archaeologist McGuire
Gibson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago described discussions before the
war with Pentagon officials: “We told them looting was the biggest danger,
and I felt they understood that the National Museum was the most important archaeological
site in the entire country. It has everything from every other site.”
More recently, in a response to Mark Fisher, the former British arts minister,
in the Guardian on January 25, Patrick Boylan, an emeritus professor
of heritage policy at the City University of New York, noted that during the
first Gulf War, Dick Cheney as defense secretary collected “detailed advice
on the cultural heritage of Iraq and Kuwait from around 80 international experts
and institutions.” Included was information on the National Museum in
The military used this knowledge during operation Desert Storm in 1991, and,
for the most part, did not damage any important sites. After a 1993 report to
Congress, Boylan notes, “The Pentagon gave an assurance that ‘similar
steps will be taken by the Unites States in future conflicts.’”
Boylan continues, “It is simply inconceivable that, during the planning
of the military action in 2002-03, the Pentagon did not turn up the detailed
heritage-protection rules and maps applied so relatively successfully in the
first Gulf War.... Someone or some group must have taken a positive decision
to scrap the US’s established protection policies and ignore the January
1993 assurance to Congress given by the defence department, still under Dick
Cheney at that time.”
There is evidence that this was the case. For example, Washington Post reporter
Dana Priest said on April 11, 2003 on National Public Radio’s “Washington
Week in Review” that “the looting is not something they didn’t
predict. In fact, I’ve ... talked to officials who believe that really
there needs to be a self-purging of the worst elements and that’s what
you’re actually seeing. It’s ... a conscious decision by the administration
not to get involved in it ...” .
A plan to loot Iraq?
The looting of the Iraqi National Museum must be taken in the context of the
cultural “policy” of the American invasion.
The burning of libraries and the looting of many other museums accompanied
the thefts from the Iraqi National Museum. Manuscripts detailing the history
of Iraq under Ottoman rule are gone forever as are precious ancient copies of
Before and after the installation of a puppet Iraqi government, a great tragedy
has unfolded in the looting of archaeological sites. The Iraqi countryside in
many places is covered by tells or mounds of accumulated refuse from thousands
of years of human habitation. Looters, often using heavy equipment, are digging
up these sites for artifacts that can be sold on the international antiquities
McGuire Gibson has observed, “Hundreds and hundreds of sites in the south
are being looted, especially the Sumerian sites. Many of these are in isolated
areas. Any site that is not near a town is probably being devastated.
“In May 2003, I was in an Army helicopter and flew down and examined
the sites in the south. We saw 25 sites and landed at three. There were 250
looters at one, 300 at another, working during the day. At one site, the Army
drove them off, but we know from reporters that they came back the next day.”
The former British arts minister, Mark Fisher, in his January 16 Guardian
piece noted that “the [sites of] Sumerian city-states (Lagash, Uruk and
Larsa) have been so badly damaged by looters that observers have described them
as resembling devastated lunar landscapes, with craters 5m deep.”
In March, over 200 objects from the National Museum were recovered in Najaf,
but in a recent interview a former antiquities smuggler remarked, “There
is an ocean of material coming from Iraq on a daily basis. This is the central
point from where it is sold on.” One collector in New York “has
organized a complete system of looting archaeological sites in Iraq. He has
thousands of pieces in his collection.” 
The beleaguered city of Samarra, once the capitol of the Abbasid caliphate,
was the home not only to the golden domed al-Askari mosque, whose destruction
on February ignited a wave of sectarian killings, but also to archaeological
excavations. The United States military has built a berm around the city that
cuts though archaeological sites.
It has used the city’s famous al-Malwiya (winding) minaret of the al-Jami
mosque, featured on Iraqi currency, as a sniper position, in clear contravention
of the Hague Convention. The mosque was built in 848-852. In retaliation, insurgents
fired a missile last year and damaged the minaret.
Most ominously, post-invasion Iraq has seen the assassination of hundreds of
Iraqi professionals and academics by pro-government death squads.
The recklessness of the Bush administration is not enough to explain the vast
destruction of physical materials and human intellectual capital resulting from
the US war and occupation of Iraq. Only one conclusion is possible: a sustained
and deliberate war against Iraq’s rich cultural heritage began with the
invasion three years ago.
 Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick, Thieves of
Baghdad. One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey
to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures. New York: Bloomsbury,
2005. (Philip Kennicott in the January 22 Washington Post is accurate
in saying that the voice of the book is “terribly strained” and
that “those who question that [Iraq] war—and war in general—may
find Bogdanos a repellent figure, symptomatic of a new hubris in certain military
and political circles.” There are “the faint rumblings of a military
culture that goes beyond mere duty and includes a disturbing degree of entitlement—to
bend rules, disdain criticism, and place oneself above the people one serves.”
And what is one to make of a narrative that not once but several times singles
Ahmed Chalabi out for praise?)
 Mathew Bogdanos, “The Casualties of War: the Truth
about the Iraq Museum.” American Journal of Archaeology, 109
(July 2005), pp. 477-526.
 The text of the Hague Convention can be found at: http://www.icomos.org/hague/
 Interview for Dig. The Archaeology Magazine for Kids,
August 24, 2004 http://www.digonsite.com/grownups/Gibson.html
 Richard Agnew, “The Insider” (interview with
Michel Van Rijn) ITP Business December 18, 2005 http://www.itp.net/business/features/details.php?id=3556