TCS Daily

'Greatest Cultural Disaster'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 15, 2003 12:00 AM

By 1258 A.D. Baghdad had enjoyed almost five centuries of growth and development. It was an East-West commercial crossroads and one of the world's leading centers of culture and learning, where the study of mathematics, medicine, philosophy and science had reached new heights. A city of almost a million, it not only fed itself well, but also exported food. The rich soil of its environs was exploited with sophisticated agriculture made possible because Baghdad's engineers and farmers had learned to tame the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with a complex of canals and a sophisticated irrigation system. It was a prosperous city of libraries, hospitals, and universities.

Then Hulagu Khan blew into town.

He was the grandson of Genghis Kahn and he led an army of 200,000 Tartars. Historians tell us the killing went on for 40 days. The city's ruler, al-Musta 'sim Billah, was literally trampled to death by Tartar soldiers. Hulagu's warriors hacked and killed, piling the bodies up in alleys so they could negotiate the streets looking for more victims. The gutters ran with blood. The libraries were destroyed, the hospitals were destroyed; art and architecture, everything was laid waste, even the magnificent canal system.

Baghdad was never the same again, although it managed over the next one and a half centuries to stagger back to at least a shadow of its former stature. Then, in 1401, a Mongol named Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) headed west out of Samarkand and destroyed it again, killing thousands. A battered Baghdad slumped into the backwater of history for the next 6 centuries.

Now, an American army, in one of the swiftest, most amazing campaigns in military history, has taken modern Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million people, freeing them from the hold of one of the most vicious dictators of modern times. And this time Baghdad has been sacked - well, partially sacked - by its own residents.

A brief but deadly vacuum developed because the Iraqi government had simply disappeared and the relatively small American forces were engaged in a difficult battle to root out pockets of resistance, some of it from foreign terrorist irregulars.

Into that vacuum rushed a small fraction of the city's population. Many were the bitterly poor, disenfranchised and disregarded by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist bullyboys. Many were simply citizens venting their rage against the fallen government. Some were criminal gangs and some were the usual gaggle of main-chancing, target-of-opportunity thugs who follow in the train of any chaos.

There were few deaths and the looting was directed particularly against all institutions of the government, the Baath party and the homes and palaces of the leadership. It spilled over, here and there, to shops, private homes, even hospitals. It was covered close-up by hundreds of roving television cameramen and breathless journalists and photographers. The result was a powerful, but highly distorted and misleading image of the whole affair.

Meanwhile, relatively small numbers of American soldiers and Marines, roaming a sprawling and unfamiliar city, had to concentrate on two things:

  • Finding whatever concentrations of Iraqi regulars, Saddam Fedayeen or foreign jihadists might still be hidden among the thousands upon thousands of homes and apartments government buildings, schools, mosques, gas stations, warehouses, shops, restaurants, department stores, marketplaces that rolled out mile after mile around them.
  • Protecting themselves against snipers and suicide bombers. It was a bloody business and lives were being lost at checkpoints and in ambushes.

Policing was not the first priority of these preliminary forces.

Scattered mobs, some numbering in the hundreds others in the thousands, roared like a fire through parts the city. One of their targets, unfortunately, was the National Museum of Iraq. Disregarding the preservation of the treasures of their own heritage, Iraqis cleaned the place out, carrying off ancient gold jewelry, ivory sculpture, cuneiform tablets, objects dating back as much as 5000 years.

Many of the thousands who reportedly roamed the Museum and its grounds, destroying what they did not steal, probably had never been in the museum before. Indeed, the building had been closed for much of the past decade and there were rumors that Saddam and his cronies had "borrowed" some of its artifacts for private display in their palaces.

In the inevitable chaos after the fall of Baghdad, what had caused these Iraqis to sack their own history? That question will be thumbsucked by pundits for years to come. All the "better people," who have been criticizing the war from its beginning, will eventually get over the sacking of hotels, shops, even hospitals. But a museum? Is nothing sacred?

The New York Times ran a slightly overheated account of the museum looting by John F. Burns, its correspondent in Baghdad. A highly respected reporter, who had shown more guts in pushing at the limits of his Iraqi handlers than most other reporters, Burns managed to get plenty of coverage of the "deep bitterness against the Americans" for such a thing to have happened.

Burns closed his piece with an angry diatribe against President George Bush by "Muhammed, the archaeologist." And Burns himself suggested that the sacking was "one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history."

Tim Russert may have had Burns' story fresh in his mind when he turned uncharacteristically fatuous during an interview with Donald Rumsfeld. "How did we allow" the sacking of the museum, he asked the Defense Secretary with great earnestness. Rumsfeld was having none of it. He stopped Russert and admonished him that it was not a matter of America "allowing" it. In the chaos caused by the fall of Saddam "it happened," Rummy explained.

The fact is the Saddam Hussein regime was one of the "greatest cultural disasters" in Middle East history. It plundered a people, looting them of hope, looting them of openness and trust, looting them of regard for their own institutions.

As order begins to be restored in Baghdad and something like a normal life returns for many city residents, it will become clearer to anyone with common sense that this temporary loss of law and order - a paroxysm familiar in the collapse of cities throughout history - was the final festering of the necrotic ulcer that was Saddam's rule.

By Sunday, there were reports that some citizens were returning goods looted from hospitals and some private homes. Others were reporting looting incidents to U.S. forces. Some police were returning to work in cooperation with the military. By Monday morning, gas stations were open, power was being restored, even some buses were running, and a more normal rhythm was evident in the city, perhaps the best indication of this emerging normalcy was the protest (against looting) being staged by hundreds of Iraqis who flocked to the street across from all those world press cameras at the Palestine Hotel. As healing of that great ulcer begins, we will see that for all his plundering, Saddam was unable to loot Iraqis of their common decency and their desire to live in peace.


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