Pillagers sack, burn Baghdad’s most important libraries
April 16, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Looters and arsonists ransacked and gutted Iraq’s National Library, leaving a smoldering shell Tuesday of precious books turned to ash and a nation’s intellectual legacy gone up in smoke.
They also looted and burned Iraq’s principal Islamic library nearby, home to priceless old Qurans; last week, thieves swept through the National Museum and stole or smashed treasures that chronicled this region’s role as the “cradle of civilization.”
“Our national heritage is lost,” an angry high school teacher, Haithem Aziz, said as he stood outside the National Library’s blackened hulk. “The modern Mongols, the new Mongols did that. The Americans did that. Their agents did that,” he said as an explosion boomed in the distance as the war winds down.
The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu, sacked Baghdad in the 13th century. Today, the rumors on the lips of almost all Baghdadis is that the looting that has torn this city apart is led by U.S.-inspired Kuwaitis or other non-Iraqis bent on stripping the city of everything of value.
But outside the gutted Islamic library on the grounds of the Religious Affairs Ministry, the lone looter scampering away was undeniably Iraqi, a grizzled man named Mohamed Salman.
“It was left there, so why leave it?” he asked a reporter as he clung to a thick, red-covered book, a catalog of the library’s religious collection. The scene inside was total devastation. In much of the library, not a recognizable book or manuscript could be seen among the dark ash.
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The destruction has drawn condemnation worldwide, with many criticizing U.S.-led coalition forces for failing to prevent or stop the looting, sometimes carried out by whole Iraqi families.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials acknowledged they were surprised by the rampage and said troops were too occupied by combat to intervene when they first reached Baghdad.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the people of Iraq,” U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at a U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar.
The United Nation’s cultural agency and the British Museum announced Tuesday they will send in teams to help restore ransacked museums and artifacts.
Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, called on customs officials, police, art dealers and neighboring countries to block the trading of stolen antiquities.
Among the National Museum’s treasures were the tablets with Hammurabi’s Code — one of mankind’s earliest codes of law. It could not be immediately determined whether the tablets were at the museum when war broke out.
Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases at the museum and pilfered or destroyed their contents. Missing were the four millennia-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls and colossal statues, ancient manuscripts and bejeweled lyres.
The looting and burning — the museum in the northern city of Mosul also was pillaged — has dealt a terrible blow to a society that prides itself on its universities, literature and educated elite.
“I can’t express the sorrow I feel. This is not real liberation,” said an artist in a wing of the National Library that had been looted but not burned.
The thin, bearded, 41-year-old man, who would not give his name, was going through old bound newspapers and tearing out pages whose artistic drawings appealed to him. “I came yesterday to see the chaos, and when I saw it, I decided to take what I could,” he said.
The three-story, tan brick National Library building, dating to 1977, housed all books published in Iraq, including copies of all doctoral theses. It preserved rare old books on Baghdad and the region, historically important books on Arabic linguistics, and antique manuscripts in Arabic that teacher Aziz said were gradually being transformed into printed versions.
“They had manuscripts from the Ottoman and Abbasid periods,” Aziz said, referring to dynasties dating back a millennium. “All of them were precious, famous. I feel such grief.”
No library officials could be located to detail the loss. Haroun Mohammed, an Iraqi writer based in London, told The Associated Press some old manuscripts had been transferred from the library to a Manuscript House across the Tigris River.
Except for wooden card catalog drawers and a carved-wood service counter which somehow escaped the flames, nothing was left in the National Library’s main wing but its charred walls and ceilings, and mounds of ash. The floor on the ground level was still warm from the flames. Long rolls of microfilm littered the courtyard.
“This was the best library in Iraq,” said music student Raad Muzahim, 27, standing among piles of paper in the periodical room. “I remember coming as a student. They were hospitable, letting students do their research, write their papers.
Armored vehicles were positioned on the nearby street, manned by U.S. Marines. They did nothing to stop Tuesday’s continuing trickle of looters.