x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Looters show no sign of stopping

Severe shortage of funds and security personnel have hit Baghdad's efforts to prevent looters who continue to plunder Iraq's heritage sites.

KUT // Historical treasures continue to be stolen from important archaeological sites in Iraq, hundreds of which remain unguarded, an Iraqi official involved in preservation efforts has warned. Burhan Abdul Rutha, the director of the Institute of Antiquities in Wasit province, said organised crime groups were still unearthing ancient artefacts and illegally exporting them.

Efforts to stop the thefts were being hindered by a severe shortage of security officers, he said, and lack of funding. "A lot of the ancient sites have been dug up and looted," he explained, in an interview at his office in Kut, Wasit's provincial capital. "Most of the sites are not protected. I wish we had guards for all of the areas but there are only 43 guards covering 439 different sites [in Wasit].

"We are suffering from limited resources, there is only a limited amount of money coming to us from the government." Thousands of items of historical importance have been stolen from Iraq since the US led invasion of 2003. Infamously, the national museum in Baghdad was not protected by American troops in the aftermath of their arrival, leaving looters to steal an estimated 15,000 objects, including a number of items considered to be priceless.

Some of the stolen pieces have been recovered, surfacing as far afield as the United States, Switzerland and Japan, or appearing for sale on eBay. According to the FBI's Art Crime Unit, looting in Iraq continues on a "massive scale". It ranks the thefts from the Baghdad museum at top of its art crimes list, above stolen Renoirs, Rembrandts and Van Gogh's. As many as 10,000 pieces from the museum alone are still missing.

"The thefts from sites in Wasit are organised," Mr Rutha said. "It's normally the ordinary poor people who do the stealing but they are paid to do that by businessmen who trade in these artefacts. It's organised crime. Most of the stealing happened in 2003 and 2004 but it is happening today." Wasit, to the south-east of Baghdad, is the location of a number of important pre-Islamic sites dating back thousands of years, and is particularly rich in Sumerian history, the oldest known human civilisation. One of the most looted sites in the province, between Nasariyah and Diwaniya, is Sumerian.

The Institute of Antiquities, an arm of the Iraqi government, has carried out brief surveys and produced a GPS co-ordinates map of critical areas, Mr Rutha said. But his team of four archaeological experts were ill equipped to carry out more detailed research. Instead, they rely heavily on farmers and workmen accidentally making many of the archaeological finds as they go about their daily work. Some 700 artefacts, including Sumerian stone tablets, pottery and money had been discovered by locals who then contacted the authorities, Mr Rutha said.

While pre-Islamic sites were still at risk, archaeological institute officials said Islamic areas had been mostly untouched, largely because collectors only wanted the oldest, and thus most valuable, pieces. Mr Rutha, who has been at the institute of antiquities in Wasit for 16 years, said he had hoped foreign experts would come to help conduct digs and fully catalogue the area's history. That has not happened, however.

"Foreign expertise is something we badly need to support us on this," he said. "We remain hopeful that it will come, if the security situation continues to improve." International organisations have been involved in cultural preservation efforts in Baghdad. The Italian government created an online version of the national museum, and last November Google announced it would catalogue the museum's inventory with the aim of making photos available on the internet.

The national museum was itself officially reopened last year - although not to the general public. The move prompted criticism from some Iraqi officials who said it was premature and motivated by narrow political considerations. Last month a French, Italian and Belgian archaeological team began a dig in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish city of Erbil, the first of its kind since the 2003 invasion. Iraq's three Kurdish administered provinces are highly secure, in contrast to much of the rest of the country where risks remain significant.

In addition to the looting, Iraq's ancient sites have suffered from the heavy footprint of armies at war. A number of US military bases, including Talil airfield, were built in locations of historical importance, the artefact-rich soil used in fortifications. Iraq's own army has been complicit in the destruction too, digging fighting positions into archaeological zones during the eight year long Iran-Iraq conflict.

"We will never know what has been lost, too much from our history has been stolen and smuggled out of the country or destroyed," lamented Mr Rutha. "We are fortunate there is still much left undisturbed, waiting to be rediscovered." @Email:psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae