On Tuesday, directors of some of the world’s leading museums met at the British Museum in London. Their mission: salvaging what can be salvaged at the plundered Iraq Museum. Their point man in Baghdad will be Dr. Donny George, research director of the Iraq Museum, who visited London for the meeting. There was much ado about the much-quoted Dr. George, who gave a colorful account of the museum under siege. He (again) pointed an accusing finger at the United States, for failing to prevent the “crime of the century.” (“Was it done intentionally? I don’t know. But moving a tank 50 of 60 meters would have saved mankind’s heritage.”)
And he got glowing press in London. The Guardian reported that his “bravery in tackling looters after the first Gulf war has earned him something of a reputation as an Indiana Jones figure.” He also made a great impression on officialdom. “A typically wet performance on Tuesday from culture secretary Tessa Jowell,” noted the Financial Times. “She found it ‘truly humbling’ to meet Donny George, veteran research director of Baghdad’s National Museum.” Clearly, Dr. George has landed on his feet.
But no one who knows how Saddam’s Iraq worked should think for a moment that Dr. George was anything less than a faithful servant of his master. In fact, he seems to have been less the Indiana Jones of Iraqi archaeology, and more its Tariq Aziz. He was the urbane handler of the foreign archaeologists, with one overarching purpose: turning them into an anti-embargo lobby among the well-heeled. To judge from the sanctions-busting by many foreign archaeologists, he did a pretty good job. He certainly enjoyed the confidence of Saddam Hussein. Two years ago, Dr. George boasted to a foreign journalist that Saddam not only read his reports, but returned them with careful notes in the margins. Reports on what? Isn’t that something we should know, before we feel “truly humbled” in Dr. George’s presence?
In September 1990, within weeks of Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, the staff of the Iraq Museum turned up in Kuwait, loaded the contents of Kuwait’s National Museum into open lorries (their methods were “anything but professional,” notes the collection’s patron), and hauled them across the desert to the basement of their own museum. Kuwait had been abolished by Saddam, and these treasures were now part of Iraq’s patrimony. Most of the plunder was returned to the Kuwaitis—after Iraq’s defeat and a U.N. resolution. But some of the collection was damaged, and 59 prime objects “disappeared,” including a few spectacular emeralds—just the sort of thing a Baath higher-up would want in his pocket. Wouldn’t you like to hear more about that earlier Baath heist from Dr. George, before feeling “truly humbled” in his presence?
If you visited the Iraq Museum over the last couple of years (in defiance of your government’s travel ban), Dr. George would have shown you the head of a winged bull statue, the kind found at the entrance to Assyrian palaces. This one had been stolen and cut up by a gang of smugglers. Their bad luck: they got caught. Dr. George then would have told you the fate that befell the smugglers: ten of them were executed. Dr. George called that theft the “crime of the century,” explaining that antiquities smuggling endangered Iraq’s “national security.” He also told a journalist in 2001 that new and harsher penalties for looting of artefacts were due to be put in effect that year, including the death penalty. Wouldn’t you want to know how Iraq came to impose such despotic penalties, and whether they were urged upon Saddam by Iraq’s archaeological bureaucrats, before allowing yourself to be “truly humbled” by Dr. George?
Now that you no longer feel all that humbled, read this paragraph from the New York Times report of the London meeting:
Although some evidence suggests that people with inside knowledge of the museum were responsible for stealing the more valuable items, Mr. George said he had no information indicating that the culprits were officials connected with his antiquities department or with the government of Saddam Hussein.
“I know how Saddam Hussein cared for antiquities,” he said in dismissing the possibility of an inside job. How fortunate for Dr. George, his staff, and all his old superiors! How could anyone believe any of them would be involved?
Dr. George is riding high on the sympathy and guilt of the world, and there are no other Iraqis who can be relied upon to do the salvage work. But a time for hard questions will come. Already, Iraqis aren’t returning artefacts to the museum staff, preferring to hand them over to U.S. troops. “It has been a challenge to us that the Iraq museum is closely identified with both the prior regime and its Baathist Party,” says Col. Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Manhattan assistant district attorney with the Marines in Baghdad, who is handling the investigation.
I suggest he include a thorough inquiry into the connections between the Iraq Museum and the regime, and seriously probe the possibility that the “crime of the century” was an inside job. Kanan Makiya, while in Iraq, heard that the plundering of the museum “was the work of newly deposed Baathist officials, who had been selling off our patrimony as they saw their days were numbered.” Dr. George and other antiquities officials were the loyal servants of these thugs for thirty years. I’m sure they have interesting stories to tell. Certainly no American official should feel humbled in the presence of any of them, and eventually the interrogation lights should be turned on all of them—including Dr. George.
Why? Just listen to the American archaeologists. The American Schools of Oriental Research have described the plundering of Iraq’s museum as “comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions and the ravages of the conquistadors.” One American archaeologist, much interviewed these days, has described what happened as “the greatest catastrophe ever to befall a cultural institution in the history of the world,” which would make it the crime of all centuries.
If the report in the New York Times this morning is anything to go on, it may yet turn out that these archaeologists fell for a fabulous exaggeration, propagated largely by the Baath’s apparatchiks at the Iraq Museum. But since we don’t know yet, let’s have the mother of all criminal investigations, to find out exactly what happened. No one should be above suspicion—especially the people who knew where to find the best lots, who had the keys, and who had long-standing ties with the criminals who ran the regime. Quite a few people fit that description. None of them is a U.S. Marine.