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Published: Wednesday, 6/16/2004

A cultural crime

MORE than a year after the fall of Baghdad, law enforcement officials continue to bemoan the loss of thousands of priceless archaeological treasures to looters who sacked the National Museum of Iraq early in the war.

U.S. officials, notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, initially dismissed this cultural tragedy with jokes, but Mahmoud Qteishat, director-general of the customs department in Jordan, characterizes it as "the greatest crime of the century."

To their credit, Jordan and seven other neighboring countries are attempting to find and return as many of the stolen antiquities to Iraq as possible and to curb smuggling. They held a symposium recently in Amman that brought together scientists and law enforcement, cultural, and museum officials.

Donny George, director of the museum, said that 15,000 artifacts, carpets, paintings, and books remain missing, some destroyed and others likely smuggled across and out of the Middle East. Willy Deridder, chief of Interpol, puts the number at 13,000 to 14,000.

Aside from the loss of life, the destruction of the museum and nearby national libraries remain among the most regrettable events of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Responsibility lies not only with the mobs who did the looting, but with U.S. officials who did nothing to stop it, while ensuring that Iraq's oil ministry was closely guarded.

Mr. Rumsfeld ridiculed news reports of the looting, saying that film clips appeared to show "the same guy with the same vase" time after time. What had actually taken place was a cultural crime, the loss of an irreplaceable history of the region long referred to as the Cradle of Civilization.

The war and occupation may have destabilized an inherently shaky section of the Middle East, but the attention being paid to restoring Iraq's national treasures is a reassuring sign of return to normality amid the chaos.

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