Essay

Ali Baba and the forty thieves

'WATCH OUT – ALI Baba!' the taxi driver says as we pass the burnt-out Information Ministry in Baghdad. 'Ali Baba' is the evocative local slang for looters, and the ministry and the utterly destroyed shopping centre opposite are both crawling with thieves.

We are heading for the Iraq Museum, which is in good shape by comparison – on the outside at least. But the ransacking of the museum by looters as United States troops fought their way into Baghdad has in many ways come to symbolise the wanton destruction of the war and its unintended consequences. The loss of treasures dating back to the start of human civilisation has been described as the 'crime of the century' and as equivalent to 'wiping out half the Louvre'.

'I feel as if my heart has gone. I feel as if my heart has been bled and torn from me,' said Donny George, director of research in the museum's department of antiquities, as he surveyed the destruction after American troops entered the museum on April 16. 'In 100 years, people will remember this catastrophe, long after they have forgotten the war or why it was fought.'

Then we were told that rampaging crowds stole or simply smashed tens of thousands of irreplaceable items, possibly as many as 170,000 artefacts dating back to the start of mankind's history. For it was in Iraq man first depicted the human form, first wrote down an alphabet, first codified a set of laws – where the punishment for theft was the cutting off of a hand. It's here that Abraham is believed to have been born, just to clarify that all this happened before Old Testament times. Locals are so ashamed of the destruction that an urban myth has sprung up that the looting was carried out not by Iraqis but by Kuwaitis. It is repeated across Baghdad by people from all walks of life.

'Iraqis would never do this,' they say, genuinely appalled.

They repeat this myth despite a spree of looting so severe that at times the city appears to be heaving with thieves, as if someone has disturbed an ants' nest.

'But the museum is different, it is our history, it is the world's history,' Baghdadis say.

 

THE DESTRUCTION AT the museum and the burning of Iraq's national library, with the loss of historic Islamic texts, sparked a worldwide outcry, forcing Washington to respond. By late April, the US set up a multi-agency task force – including representatives from the military, US immigration and customs and FBI agents – to recover the stolen artefacts.

A very different picture is now emerging. As a result of the preliminary investigation by the Task Force, it seems we are looking at a museum heist by well-informed art thieves, who knew just what they were targeting. The 'crime of the century' may have been an inside job by either museum staff or Iraqi military, or some combination of the two, to remove the museum's treasures under cover of war and smuggle them out of Iraq for sale on the international black market.

In this scenario, like something out of Agatha Christie – 'Museum Heist in Mesopotamia' – the art thieves were simply lucky that a wave of Ali Babas streamed in behind them, obscuring their tracks.

The looters still scavenging everywhere in Baghdad are the real unforeseen consequence of this war. If the international outcry following the attack on the museum had not been so great, perhaps we'd never have discovered any part of this story and sophisticated art thieves would have succeeded in blaming the looters for their well-planned raid.

The original Ali Baba story turned on knowing the password for the cave where gold and precious stones were hidden: 'Open Sesame'. The story of the museum heist also turns on gaining access. Someone knew how to get in, for no doors were forced. The front doors remain intact. Entry was via the back doors – which had been unlocked, not broken down. The looters followed in the footsteps of people with keys.

'We found keys on the floor,' admits George as I follow him into the squat sandstone museum building. 'We don't know who they belonged to, they weren't ours.'

 

THE FRONT ENTRY hall is decorated with a frieze of Sumerian kings and winged beasts going back thousands of years. Slap-bang in the middle is Saddam Hussein's head, reminding visitors during Saddam's reign of the real lesson of Iraqi history.

The main galleries are in a separate building where there has been remarkably little destruction. No journalist was allowed to see the galleries in the immediate aftermath of the looting, which took place between April 10 and 16. Journalists were shown the research department, which was trashed – doors gouged open with axes, tables overturned and smashed, safes emptied, and papers torn and destroyed. George walks down a vandalised corridor to his office.

'It was my life's work, everything I have worked for over 25 years was here,' he says, sighing heavily. 'One hundred years of scholarship has been destroyed.'

An Assyrian Christian with fleshy cheeks and a white moustache, George is very much the public face of this crisis. He now sits in a large, almost empty room. In it is all that was salvageable– empty book shelves and a desk. A glass stands on the desk and when a woman comes to take it away, George argues with her for some time. 'She wants to take the glass, it belongs to the director. But I said that no, I needed it.'

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos heads the US Interagency Task Force investigating the looting. In civilian life, the prickly and precise Bogdanos is a New York district attorney, with a higher than average success rate on prosecutions.

Bogdanos says the fact that the research department was trashed while there is remarkably little destruction in the galleries is 'perhaps because the Iraqi people strongly identified the museum administration with the prior regime. We have encountered this over and over again. Once we'd started work, we located a box of priceless books and manuscripts from the museum in a bomb shelter in west Baghdad. Local residents did not wish us to return it to the museum because of its perceived association with the Ba'ath Party.'

(The Americans' negotiated solution was to take an inventory of the goods and leave them in the bomb shelter for the locals to guard under a 24-hour neighbourhood watch.)

Bogdanos's 15-man team is camped out in another section of the museum. There's a vat of grape Kool Aid, army-issue cake in a silver-foil tray and on the floor, a few gun magazines. In the next room there are desks and laptops, powered by a throbbing generator, and a table with all the material recovered during the investigation – more than 1500 items by the beginning of June.

Bogdanos describes the reclaimed items. Some were returned by looters, some by concerned citizens who took them to protect them from looters and others following tip-offs. He explains that museum staff had removed most valuable items before the bombing began, leaving only the fragile and the heavy objects in the galleries. Of these 42 were stolen. Nine have since been returned, leaving a total of 33 
precious items missing.

'It is clear that the number of 170,000 is a gross exaggeration,' he says dryly.

 

THE TREASURES THAT were missing from the main galleries included the sacred Vase of Warka, which dates from 3200 BC and stands one metre high, and a bronze statue from the Acadian era (about 2500 BC) which weighs about 300 kilograms. Its size means it's not something your average looter would just take. Even an art thief would be unlikely to remove such a heavy item on spec without lining up a buyer first. In June the vase was returned undamaged.

'The thieves knew what they were looking for,' says Bogdanos, 'and they knew where to get it. These were informed thieves, thieves who were intimately acquainted with the museum and its storage practices.'

George concedes this now. 'Yes, some of the thieves were well prepared. They brought keys and glass-cutters. They passed by gypsum statues and never touched them. They knew which the fakes were and they knew what they were looking for.'

However, he denies that museum staff were involved. 'Never! We had one guard here at all times and no one spotted our staff within the looting times.'

The museum's storage magazines were also looted – by thieves with keys. The keys were last seen in a safe in the museum director's office. They are now missing.

It is difficult to determine precisely what has been taken from the storage magazines, since there was no central catalogue. Many of the most valuable items had been removed by museum staff to safe locations over more than a decade, since before the first Gulf war. Staff say they stored about 20 boxes of gold and jewellery, including the famous Treasure of Nimrood, at the Central Bank of Iraq. It was initially impossible to check this because the bank vaults were waterlogged following the US bombing. However after the sewage was pumped out in late May, the Treasures of Nimrood were located. They will go back on exhibition for the first time since 1991 when the Museum re-opens.

Museum staff also say that there is a 'secret' storage location known to several of them where they have been removing material for a number of years – often ahead of looters from the Ba'ath Party. They say they are sworn to secrecy and will not reveal the location until US forces leave the country and there is a new government in Iraq.

 

THIS HIGHLIGHTS THE suspicions between the two groups who now have to work together to catalogue the museum's losses and recover the missing items. Museum staff look at the American investigators and see invaders who managed to protect the Ministry of Oil but not Iraq's cultural treasures.

'I don't know why the Americans did so little to protect the museum,' says George sadly. 'They were warned by overseas specialists and given a list of places to be protected and I understand that the museum was number two on the list and the Ministry of Oil was number 14, but they managed to protect the ministry. On Thursday, the 10th of April, one of our staff who lives on site went to beg them to intervene and they said, "We don't have orders". So the catastrophe followed.

The American investigators see a theft with the hallmarks of an inside job, where much of the evidence points to museum staff closely identified with the Ba'ath Party regime, in part because of Saddam Hussein's obsession with placing himself at the centre of Iraq's ancient history.

While museum staff are co-operating with the investigators, George is prepared to say on the record that the inside job was carried out by American troops. German TV reported that there was an American military vehicle in the grounds of the museum on the first day of the looting. This must be when all the treasures disappeared.' When I ask him if he has any evidence to back up such a serious allegation, he gives me a look reminiscent of that perfected by Iraq's former Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf. All he can say is: 'It must be – they say the American vehicle was there for two hours.'

Bogdanos says that his brief is recovery and not prosecution. 'My job is to get things back and not to inquire where they came from. So if someone brings in priceless treasures, I don't put him up against the wall. I say, "Thankyou' and offer him a cup of tea."'

Prosecution may follow, or it may not. Ali Baba may be able to simply say, 'Close Sesame' and get away with it.

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