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Looters carry away pieces of Iraq's past
Neela Banerjee and Micah Garen
International Herald Tribune 5/4/2004

AL DHAARA, Iraq: In the desert about three hours south of Baghdad, Abdul-Amir Hamdani stood at the edge of a grave that until a few weeks ago had been covered for 5,000 years. Jewelry, engraved seals and small statues that had been discovered inside had by now all disappeared.
Hamdani, who is in charge of antiquities in Dhi Qar Province, had come here with a convoy of Italian paramilitary police and army soldiers to pursue looters who had plundered this archaeological site, which dates to the Sumerian period.
"When you come here at night, it looks like a city, there are so many lights," Hamdani said, looking out over the arid scrubland where thieves swarm after dark.
On this bright day, the looters were gone. They had left a moonscape of craters where they had burrowed for artifacts for collectors outside Iraq. Deep in one pit, thieves had unearthed a tall urn that once held a body curled in a fetal position.
The urn was shattered and the remains and any ornaments buried with it had vanished.
Archaeological sites in Iraq have been looted since the end of the Gulf war in 1991, often with the involvement of the government of Saddam Hussein. But in the lawless aftermath of his removal by military force, thieves invaded Iraq's archaeological sites in large numbers and stole artifacts from the ancient buried cities of Mesopotamia.
Almost a year later, they continue to plunder the sites and to erase the tangible record of the world's earliest civilizations.
Protecting antiquities remains a low priority for both the Iraqi and the occupation authorities, according to Iraqis and foreigners involved. Perhaps the only place where looters have been thwarted is here in Dhi Qar Province, about 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, south of Baghdad, where Hamdani and the Carabinieri the Italian national police, a paramilitary force that is part of the Italian contingent in Iraq have set up a program to monitor the sites and pursue looters.
But that effort has met with limited success, said those involved, and to date, the Iraqi guards at the province's sites lack everything from uniforms to cars.
"We have 800 sites around Nasiriya alone, and one million thieves," Hamdani said hyperbolically. "I am ready to work with the Devil in order to protect these sites."
In the region south of Baghdad, low mounds that rise from the unrelenting flatness are all that remain of the prosperous cities of Mesopotamia. The dunes atop the ancient settlements are littered with their pottery shards. Archaeological sites in Iraq run mostly along the former course of the Euphrates, which over time has shifted south and west, leaving the old cities in remote areas where looters can work undisturbed.
Since last May, when major combat operations ended in Iraq, the thieves have become more organized and better armed.
Groups of 40 to 50 thieves who have been working Babylonian sites south of Baghdad now have automatic rifles, sport utility vehicles and the sense of impunity to wave at a helicopter hovering above them, said John Russell, who was on the trip and who is the occupation authority's deputy senior adviser for culture.
Only a tiny fraction of Iraq's sites have been explored so far by archaeologists, and it is almost impossible to ascertain how many objects may have been lost or to determine their significance.
But if each site in Iraq is like a chapter in a book about the common origins of civilization, then the persistent looting over the past year has ripped away pages and pages.
The occupation military has periodically beaten back looters.
But the Italians are the only ones who have made a sustained effort to halt the looting. Since the fall, rotating teams of four to six Carabinieri, specially trained to protect
Italy's antiquities have tried to safeguard the archaeological sites in Dhi Qar Province,
The Carabinieri have made a detailed map of local sites, with aerial picture: of the extensive damage done by looting. They have arrested dozens of people. They have returned more than 400 objects to the Iraqi board of antiquities and cataloged them, in case they ever appear on the international art market.
They are also working with a former Italian ambassador, Mario Bondioli Osio, who is the senior adviser for culture in Baghdad, to put together a program to train and equip about 1,750 security guards to patrol all of Iraq's sites.
At present, about 310 guards have been trained, but they still lack everything from ammunition to radios to cars.
Regular Iraqi police officers, and those who protect more tangible resources like banks and oil refineries, had such essential equipment by the end of 2003.
The Packard Humanities Institute, an American foundation, is giving $750,000 to outfit the archaeological site guards, and the American-led occupation authority responsible for south-central Iraq had earmarked $1 million for the protection of the country's antiquities, Russell said.
"Its not really our first priority, because we came here to create the conditions for stability," said Colonel Carmelo Burgio, chief of the Carabinieri in Dhi Qar Province, referring to the protection of archaeological sites,
"We're really at the beginning of the process."




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