Troops were told to guard treasures
By Paul Martin
KUWAIT CITY - In a memo sent two weeks before the fall of Baghdad, the Pentagon office charged with rebuilding Iraq urged top commanders of U.S. ground forces to protect the Iraqi National Museum and other cultural sites from looters.
"Coalition forces must secure these facilities in order to prevent looting and the resulting irreparable loss of cultural treasures," says the March 26 memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
The Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), led by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, sent the five-page memo to senior commanders at the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC).
Two weeks later, American forces pulled down the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to cheering crowds, and in the days that followed, looters pillaged Baghdad.
The museum was No. 2 on a list of 16 sites that ORHA deemed crucial to protect. Financial institutions topped the list, including the Iraqi Central Bank, which is now a burned-out shell filled with twisted metal beams from the collapse of the roof and all nine floors under it.
"We asked for just a few soldiers at each building, or if they feared snipers, then just one or two tanks," said an angry ORHA official, one of several who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for CFLCC, the Kuwait-based branch of Central Command that is in charge of coalition ground forces, was not familiar with the memo. He agreed to pass a request for comment up the chain of command.
U.S. officials characterized the initial days of looting, in which Iraqi government buildings were ransacked and burned, as acts of revenge against a despised regime.
A few days later, however, looters targeted the National Museum.
Much of the ORHA memo, titled "Guidance for CFLCC's Priorities for Securing Key Baghdad Institutions" is devoted to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.
"Among other assets, it controls Iraq's museums and archeological sites, which contain many priceless art treasures and antiquities of world importance," the memo says.
The memo expresses particular concern for the National Museum located in central Baghdad:
"It contains literally thousands of priceless historical objects, many of them gold, silver, and precious stones, as well as priceless works of art.
"Its collections cover over 5,000 years of recorded history and represent the fruits of 200 years of scientific investigation by both Western and Iraqi archaeologists.
"It will be a prime target for looters," the memo says.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week expressed sympathy over the plunder of the National Museum while denying that the war plan had failed to prepare for such a threat.
"To try to lay off the fact of that unfortunate activity on a defect in a war plan it strikes me as a stretch," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
"Looting is an unfortunate thing. Human beings are not perfect," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "No one likes it. No one allows it." But he added: "To the extent it happens in a war zone, it's difficult to stop."
Two cultural advisers to the Bush administration resigned in protest of the museum's looting
Martin Sullivan, who chaired the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years, and panel member Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said they quit because the U.S. military had advance warning of the danger and failed to act.
Antiquities experts have said they were given assurances months ago from U.S. military planners that Iraq's historic artifacts and sites would be protected by occupying forces.
Leading archaeologists, who gathered in Paris last week, said professional art thieves were behind some of the looting.
The FBI has dispatched agents to Iraq in an attempt to recover some of the booty, and alerts have gone out worldwide in an effort to recover works as they show up on the black market.
Jordanian customs officials said yesterday they had confiscated 41 photographs stolen from the museum, not of antiquities but of Saddam Hussein and his life.
The memo's list of 16 sites in need of protection - in apparent order of priority - also included various ministries such as defense, foreign affairs and interior.
"In addition to obtaining basic access to all ministries, coalition forces should secure the facilities and prevent the destruction or removal of equipment and sensitive records (including paper and electronic media) in key Iraqi institutions in Baghdad."
Just one ministry was protected by coalition forces from the beginning of the occupation, the Ministry of Oil, which was last on the list.
The memo said: "Looters should be arrested/detained," yet in the days after the fall of Baghdad, looters carted off their booty as U.S. forces looked on.
"It's a tragedy and a disaster for our image and for rebuilding Iraq," said one official from ORHA. "And it could have been so easily stopped.
"As early as the 24th of March, we were putting together the instructions for CFLCC for their insertion into Baghdad. And it was quite clear to us in very early stages that, unless we were able to secure these buildings, that they would be looted."
The official said the documents had reached "several different people on several different occasions" in print and by secure e-mail.
At a meeting on April 10, the ORHA staff were aghast when told that the document had not even been read, the official said.
The official also criticized military commanders for blocking the ORHA staff from moving from Kuwait to Baghdad, where they are supposed to oversee reconstruction.
Gen. Garner was said by one of his aides to be "just livid" at the delay.
"The military have done a wonderful military job, but they have refused to listen to the civilians who were brought in to specifically tell them what they needed to do in order to make the civilian side of this work," the official said.
"The excuse that we've got back time and time again was that their first priority was to war fight, the second priority was to look after their safety, and the third priority was to do the work that we had asked them to do. My question is: Why ask us to come here?" the official asked.
He said this sense of frustration was shared by all ORHA officials. "They haven't listened to any of us. We are all equally upset."
[Source: The Washington Times, 20Apr03]
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