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Published: Sunday, 4/20/2003

A legacy up in smoke

Adding insult to war-time injury, two of Iraq's national libraries have been ransacked and burned by mobs. As was the case when the national museum in Baghdad was sacked in similar fashion the week before, U.S. forces stood by and did nothing to prevent what a reporter on the scene described as “a nation's intellectual legacy gone up in smoke.”

As the occupying power in Iraq, the United States - including the Pentagon and President Bush, who directed the war plan - bears much of the responsibility for what may turn out to be one of history's worst cultural disasters.

While it is bewildering to imagine what would possess newly liberated Iraqis to trash their country's heritage, preventing post-war looting and destruction clearly is the duty of an occupying power when decimated local forces no longer are able to maintain order.

This is especially true since the Bush Administration has contended that a major reason for the March 20 invasion was to bring democracy to Iraq.

Nothing much is more important to an emerging democratic form of government than the collections of a nation's history, including artifacts like those in the museum and rare books and manuscripts in the libraries.

All that's left of Iraq's national library is a fire-blackened shell. It contained all books published in Iraq, plus copies of doctoral theses from the nation's universities. Old books and antique Arabic manuscripts were reduced to ashes. Lost in the destruction nearby of Iraq's principle Islamic library were priceless old Qur'ans and other sacred writings of the Muslim faith.

With the war winding down, why weren't troops assigned to protect these key cultural facilities? In Europe during World War II, such action was taken as a matter of course by the conquering Allies to allay damage to museums and art treasures. Why not in Iraq? Could it be that those who conceived this war were preoccupied with protecting buildings they consider more important, like the Oil Ministry?

It is true that bullets were still flying when the national museum was destroyed as troops took Baghdad on April 10. But the chaos had quieted considerably five days later when mobs attacked the libraries. Why the official indifference to the senseless destruction of a nation's written record?

These tragic incidents aren't a good way to begin what promises to be a long military occupation of Iraq. Far from being grateful for their liberation from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, many Iraqis remain hostile to the U.S.

Even though the destruction was carried out by Iraqi mobs, failure to anticipate and prevent the irreplaceable loss of cultural heritage only makes the United States' role as occupier considerably more difficult.

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