The Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that between $31 billion and $60 billion has been lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.The figures seem even more staggering, considering the overall amount the US has committed to rebuilding Iraq: roughly $62 billion.Peter Van Buren was a head of an Iraq Reconstruction team, working for the US State Department.US State Department Foreign Service Officer told RT that “The squandering of resources occurred on very small levels: a couple of thousand dollars here and there and zoomed all the way up into hundreds of millions of dollars that were spent on hospitals that never opened or prisons that never took any prisoners in.”The Commission on Wartime Contracting is out of business now, after Congress cut its funding.The details of their probe is sealed until 2031.“They don’t want people in high places to come under scrutiny,” Michael O’Brien believes. “The US Congress wants to put the fraud behind the debacle of our Iraqi invasion.”The scope of the fraud and waste is enormous. The US justice system goes after individuals who have stolen a few thousand dollars here and there, but not after the big players, the big contractors, that have really made real killings on the wars.
Iraq Looting extravaganza
The only real comparison is to the surface of the moon. Craters as deep as 16 feet cover multi-acre sites that are remnants of what is widely considered the cradle of civilization. The craggy, arid earth, all but barren of vegetation, lies in mounds alongside the deep pits where thousands of Iraqi antiquities—cuneiform tablets, ancient scrolls and kings commemorated in stone that might give clues to how civilization began—have been ripped from their resting places and sold to nefarious (or unsuspecting) dealers and collectors. Some sites have been so ravaged that the top 10 feet of earth and all of the irreplaceable artifacts buried there for centuries are gone.
Amid the catastrophe of the war in Iraq—the violence, bloodshed and loss of human life—is the loss of the world’s cultural heritage in the form of hoards of antiquities. It is an ongoing, silent tragedy for which there seems to be no viable solution.
Sources say this is not the work of renegades with shovels. It is planned and executed by organized bands—200 to 300 per site—with heavy machinery at many of the 12,000 sites. And the payout is big. The average Iraqi makes the equivalent of $1,000 per year, yet a cache of looted antiquities can sell for $20,000. And looters can sell two or three such caches every week.
Such looting is not new to Iraq. It has been happening for decades if not centuries, according to Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine Reserves colonel and assistant district attorney in Manhattan who investigated the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum (an article on his findings appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Museum News). “The looting is a cottage industry. That is clear,” he says, adding that it is like a trade passed down from one generation to the next. “They say, ‘My father did it, my grandfather did it. What else do you want me to do?’”
What’s changed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003? The pace of looting and the penalties. “Under Saddam [Hussein] the penalty for looting was death—obviously that deterred looting,” said Bogdanos. “When they realized we [U.S. Armed Forces] wouldn’t shoot looters, instead of scattering they would wave to us in the helicopter.” Sources say it is unclear what the current penalty for looting is.
In “Erasing the Past: Looting of Archaeological Sites in Southern Iraq,” an essay in the 2005 book The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton paint a picture of the organized crime: “Hundreds of people from the surrounding areas dig
. . . in small teams of five to ten. There are dozens of antiquities kingpins, who organize large-scale looting, moving thousands of objects out of Iraq each year.”
Since the invasion, the looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites has continued unabated. Up to 15,000 objects are being taken from the ground daily, according to MacGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology who has worked extensively in Iraq. Little is being done to stop it.
Because the looting is highly organized, the natural question is, what criminal activities is it funding? Within the cultural heritage community, there is much talk about whether the pillaging is linked to insurgents led by fundamentalist Shi’ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. In Fajr, Garen was told that 80 percent of residents are involved in looting nearby archaeological sites. Fajr, along with Rafae and Afak, are rife with looters. These cities, all located in Southern Iraq, are also centers of activity for al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. “The looters are heavily armed and write anti-American graffiti,” says Garen, an American writer and photographer whose documentary on the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage is slated to come out next year. “Are they linked? I don’t know. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence.”
Garen has spent considerable time in Iraq, including more than a week held captive by Iraqi insurgents in 2004. According to Garen, a member of Iraq’s Parliament told him there are links between the Sadr movement and the looting. However, Garen emphasized that there is no clear connection. “You have to see it as criminal gangs who will loot regardless of who’s in power. Ultimately looting is about money, not about political affiliation. Looting was going on during Saddam—long before there was a Mahdi army.”
Garen also says that there have been rumors of Islamic dictates, or fatwas, involving looting. In Nasariyah, Garen was told of a “hidden” fatwa sanctioning looting as long as the money would be used against coalition forces. He added that the Islamic principle zakat is used to justify looting. The Koran states that everything belongs to God and wealth is held by humans in trust. Through zakat possessions are purified by using them for those in need. One reading of the passage could be that if you believe the money will be used in service to God, you are justified in the actions used to obtain it.
Even without a connection to insurgents, sources who have worked in Iraq before and after the invasion agree that looting is a security issue.
Bogdanos explains that although kidnapping is still the primary source of funding for insurgents and other malfeasants, looting generates a lot of cash. “If you reduce looting, you reduce the violence,” he told Museum News. “You force them to find another source of funding.”
Garen and Carleton also make a connection between looting and Iraq’s instability. “Looting happens in the absence of authority,” they write. “This direct relationship is most evident during short periods of increased insecurity. In the spring of 2004, on days when clashes erupted between coalition forces and the [al-Sadr-allied] Mehdi army in southern Iraq, looting at the archaeological sites increased dramatically.”
Sources say looting has increased since the 1991 Iraq invasion and even more so since the 2003 invasion. Garen and Carleton write that it may have picked up in 1992 when a canal was dug through the country, unearthing many pieces of cultural importance. John Russell, an American archaeologist who was part of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad working with the Iraq Museum and State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) from 2003-04, said the official purpose of the canal was for irrigation and drainage of marshes, but the consequence—whether intended by Saddam Hussein or not—was that many farms in the South had water supplies cut off, destroying farmers’ income and leading many to loot for money. Local lore has it that “[s]eeing the treasure [unearthed] led neighboring villagers to begin looting en masse,” they write. Another scenario in which a villager from Fajr happens on a treasure and others follow suit in search of wealth is also a possibility.
Despite its recent roots, looting continues largely because turmoil continues. Garen and Carleton write that Shi’ite-heavy southern Iraq was hurt by economic sanctions following the 1991 war as well as Saddam Hussein’s violent oppression of the Shi’ites. “The effect was more than a decade of rampant poverty and a growing power vacuum that was slowly filled by tribal and religious leadership.”
In addition, says Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University’s program in cultural heritage law and president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, the economic sanctions imposed on the country in the 1990s meant that Iraq became increasingly poor. Iraqis turned to looting as a way to earn a living. Because resources were limited by sanctions and because the United States was enforcing a no-fly zone in the South, the Iraqi government had difficulty policing and securing the sites. “Sites get looted because of the lack of political stability, lack of security and poverty,” says Gerstenblith. “You have pretty close to a perfect storm in Iraq. Particularly in parts of the South, all three of those factors are in play.”
At the root of the problem is the lack of trained security guards at each site. According to Donny George, former head of Iraq’s SBAH, which oversaw the archaeological sites, looting decreased by 90 percent at sites that were guarded. For the last two years, the Iraqi government provided funds for guards for the sites. In early 2006, the funding was increased to allow for 1,500 guards, but that money ran out in August. George fled the country in late August with his family, fearing for their safety after a family member was threatened. “When I left, there was nothing left to pay [the guards],” George said in a phone interview from Damascus.
Russell said compensation was not the only issue. “They might have been well paid, but they didn’t have vehicles or communications [equipment]. When you get a band of looters, one guy with a gun is likely to step aside—it’s more of a watchman system.”
He added, “It would take $2 million to cut off the multi-million dollar trade in antiquities.” Included in that figure is the cost of 120 to 150 four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and radio equipment for communication. Salaries are already budgeted by the Iraqi government, he said.
Bogdanos agrees. He estimates that to protect the sites, Iraq needs 50,000-75,000 security and support staff, supplies such as vehicles, weapons, radios and fuel, and training and living quarters. In the afterward of the paperback version of his 2005 book Thieves of Baghdad, Bogdanos lays out a plan he says would solve the sites’ security issues. “[E]ach country would deploy its security forces . . . to the agreed-upon archaeological site(s),” he writes. “Each country’s contingent would also be assigned a group of Iraqi recruits who would live and work with them. Once those Iraqi security forces were fully trained and mission-capable, each assisting nation would recall its forces on a site-by-site basis.
“In six months, virtually every single archaeological site of consequence in Iraq could be completely protected from the looters. And the terrorists? They would have to find another source of income.”
Security was also one of the main areas of concern in a Sept. 23 letter from 14 scholars and other professionals from the worldwide archaeological and cultural heritage communities, urging Iraq’s top government officials to safeguard the country’s museums, archaeological sites and monuments (see sidebar, p. 50). The group stressed that guards for the sites must “continue to be paid and equipped and their numbers increased.” They further asked that SBAH, which oversees the museums and sites and had recently been absorbed by the newly created Ministry of Culture, become an independent agency. More pointedly, the group said, “All persons who work in Antiquities should be above politics and allegiance to any party, and definitely should have no connection to the antiquities trade.” Gerstenblith, one of the signers, adds that officials should be chosen based on their qualifications, not political connections. At this writing, there was no response from the Iraqi officials.
Not long after the invasion, a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq purchased eight 5,000-year-old cylinder seals from a vendor selling trinkets. Figuring that the deal was too good to be true, he turned them over to the FBI for return to proper authorities in Iraq. The total value of the recovery was $30,000.
The swift acquisition and return of those looted antiquities is a relative anomaly. Bonnie Magness Gardiner, the FBI’s art theft program manager, says that when archaeological sites are looted the objects often don’t appear on the market for 10 to 20 years. “You have to keep up that level of recognition that these items might be coming on the market,” she says. “Maybe starting now [the items from the Iraq Museum] will be appearing.”
That is another reason why museums need to be wary of acquiring ill-gotten materials. Gerstenblith cautions that Iraq has had a national ownership law since 1990, meaning that anything unearthed without the government’s permission is considered stolen property. “If it came out of Iraq after 1990, don’t touch it,” she says. “It comes down to playing the odds. Museums shouldn’t be playing the odds with publicly subsidized funds.” This is an especially timely issue, given that countries of origin with national ownership laws are contacting museums about returning allegedly looted objects. The J. Paul Getty Museum, which has been embroiled in legal battles with Italy over the last year, released a statement in October saying it will only acquire antiquities that have been in the United States since before 1970 or that have documentation declaring that they were legally exported. The year 1970 is when the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was signed.
Bogdanos’s strategy is simple. “When was it first photographed? If it appears on the market for the first time in 2006, I mean, come on. If you exercise due diligence and you turn out to be wrong, that’s not criminal. Use common sense.” Gerstenblith adds that buyers should look for reliable documents that trace the object back to its country of origin, or at least cover a few decades, and a warranty from the seller. Buyers should also check the Art Loss Register but should be aware that recently looted items won’t appear there.
The Bush administration has not publicly addressed looting since the Iraq Museum was ransacked in April 2003. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chalked the looting up as an inevitable side effect of the invasion, according to an April 12, 2003, CNN.com story. “Stuff happens,” CNN quoted Rumsfeld as saying. “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
According to Martin Sullivan, the executive director of the Historic St. Mary’s City Commission and former chair of the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, he and others met with Defense Department staffers several times before the Iraq invasion in 2003 to discuss safeguarding the museum and sites. “All of that had gotten lost. Most of the units on the ground had no orders [to protect cultural heritage sites]. The emphasis was on shock and awe.”
It was the disregard for what was said in those meetings that led Sullivan, along with two other panel members, to resign from the commission. “Probably what made me most upset was the flippant response from the Defense Department,” says Sullivan. “There was nothing personal to be lost in these resignations. In the absence of any concern, it seemed somebody should be saying something.”
Ret. Army Reserve Maj. Corine Wegener, an associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was deployed to Iraq for a year after the invasion to help rebuild the Iraq Museum. After returning, Wegener gave conservation materials to a colleague assigned to go to Baghdad one year later and work with the infantry in the museum district. She said it took weeks to find a safe window of opportunity to take the 10-minute drive to the museum because it required a full combat operation. “I can’t even imagine what it is like now,” she said. “The overall security situation is such that the looting of the sites is a symptom of that [instability]. If you can’t focus on keeping people safe, you can’t focus on the objects.”
In the absence of any short-term solution, the museum and cultural heritage communities are looking at how to prevent future disasters. “We need to establish closer connections between the cultural heritage community and the military so when we’re doing war planning, cultural heritage concerns get incorporated from the very beginning,” says Gerstenblith.
To this end, Wegener has established the Blue Shield, the U.S. branch of an international committee set up in 1996 to respond to armed conflicts that may threaten cultural property (for more on this, see page 11). “We are offering training for [Army] Civil Affairs units on how to give first aid to cultural property—how to recognize what is art and how to deal with it in an emergency situation and do the best to stabilize the situation until they can get a professional,” she says. The hope is that in the future, it will also be easier to deploy cultural heritage professionals in areas where sites are threatened.
Despite the progress she is making with the Blue Shield, Wegener is not very optimistic about the current situation.
“There’s never no hope,” she says. “[However,] people are dying, and it’s really difficult to try and save cultural property in that atmosphere.”
Francis Deblauwe is director of the Iraq War & Archaeology project, a joint documentation project of Archaeos, Inc. and the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. He also keeps a running list on his blog, IW&A, of sites that have been looted and damaged in the course of the war. The tally was 43 in November.
Deblauwe said that the archaeological community is at a loss as to how to help, not wanting to push its professional agenda over the value of human life. “We have no illusions that we have a lot of clout in this area,” he tells Museum News. “We lobby, we try, but in the end there’s a big, nasty, bloody war going on. How do you compete with that?” he asks. “You want to worry about artifacts, but you worry about the people more. You feel kind of callous talking about artifacts when you see people getting killed every day.”
The answer may be that there is no answer. Until one becomes apparent and put to the test, those close to the situation watch and wait. Says Sullivan, “We can only hope that at some point, hopefully soon, the ancient heritage of Mesopotamia will be sufficiently respected.”
Meanwhile, with every passing day, thousands of ancient objects leave the ground, their context vanishing with the thefts.
September 23, 2006
H. E. Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq
H. E. Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq
H. E. Hoshyar Zebari, Minister of Foreign Affairs
We, the undersigned, would like to express our concern for the present and future state of antiquities and cultural heritage in Iraq. As individuals who have done research for years in Iraq, who have taught its great history and culture, and who have made great efforts to call attention to the potential and real damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage due to war and its aftermath, we ask you to ensure the safety of the museums, archaeological sites, and standing monuments in the entire country. . . .
We also ask that the Antiquities Guards, who have been recruited and trained to protect the ancient sites in the countryside, be kept as a force, meaning that they continue to be paid and equipped and their numbers increased. This force is the key to halting the illegal digging of sites and damaging of monuments that has been occurring since April 2003. We furthermore ask that Iraq’s cultural heritage be treated as part of the rich culture of the Iraqi people, to be preserved for present and future generations. . . .
Iraq’s cultural heritage is an unparalleled one, and as the tradition from which many other civilizations are derived, it is of great concern to all peoples in the world. . . . For years, with its strong Antiquities Law, that made all antiquities and antiquities sites the property of the state, Iraq protected its antiquities sites better than most countries in the world, and it should rise to that level once again.
All persons who work in Antiquities should be above politics and allegiance to any party, and definitely should have no connection to the antiquities trade. Too much of the ancient treasures of Iraq have already been lost through looting and smuggling, and the damage done especially to the great cities of Sumer and Babylonia has been very extensive. Only a strong, national, non-political State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, backed fully by the force of the state, can preserve the heritage that is left.
You are in positions to save the Cultural Heritage of Iraq for everyone, and we hope that you will act to do so.
Prof. McGuire Gibson, President, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq
Prof. Robert McC. Adams, Secretary Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution
Dr. Lamia Algailani, Hon. Research Fellow, University College London
Prof. Kenneth Ames, President, Society for American Archaeology
Prof. Harriet Crawford, Chair, British School of Archaeology in Iraq
Prof. Leon DeMeyer, Rector Emeritus, University of Ghent, Belgium
Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, President, Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
Dr. Cindy Ho, President, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone
Prof. Antonio Invernizzi, Scientific Director, Centro Recirche archeologiche é Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente é l’Asia.
Dr. Michael Müller-Karpe, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, Germany
Dr. Hans J. Nissen, Professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology, The Free University of Berlin, Germany
Dr. Roberto Parapetti, Director of the Iraqi-Italian Centre for the Restoration of Monuments
Prof. Ingolf Thuesen, Director, Carsten Niebuhr Institute, University of Copenhagen
Prof. Jane Waldbaum, President, Archaeological Institute of America
Lost: The Looting of Iraq’s Antiquities
by Susan Breitkopf
This article was published in Museum News