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The Casualties of War: The Truth about the Iraq Museum

109.3
The Bassetki Statue (ca. 2250 B.C.).
The Bassetki Statue (ca. 2250 B.C.).

As Baghdad was falling to coalition forces in April 2003, the international media reported that the Iraq Museum had been ransacked and more than 170,000 of the finest antiquities from the very cradle of civilization had been stolen while U.S. forces stood idle. The list of missing objects read like a “who’s who” of Near Eastern archaeology, and the world reacted with shock and outrage. In response, the United States dispatched to the museum a highly specialized multiagency task force that had been conducting counterterrorism operations in southern Iraq at the time of the looting. Their mission was to determine what had happened at the museum and to recover whatever antiquities they could. Among several startling discoveries were that the museum compound had been turned into a military fighting position and that the initial reports that over 170,000 priceless antiquities had been stolen were wrong. Although final inventories will take years to complete, the best current estimate is that approximately 14,000–15,000 pieces were initially stolen. The investigation determined that there had been not one but three thefts at the museum by three distinct groups: professionals who stole several dozen of the most prized treasures, random looters who stole more than 3,000 excavation-site pieces, and insiders who stole almost 11,000 cylinder seals and pieces of jewelry. The investigation also determined that the international black market in Iraqi antiquities continues to flourish. Working closely with Iraqis and using a complex methodology that includes community outreach, international cooperation, raids, seizures, and amnesty, the task force and others around the world have recovered more than 5,000 of the missing antiquities. This is a comprehensive account of those thefts and recoveries, as well as an attempt to correct some of the inaccuracies and misunderstandings that have been commonly reported in the media.

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DOI: 
10.3764/aja.109.3.477