What the investigation shows
April 7, 2006
Three years have now passed since thieves looted the Iraqi
National Museum in Baghdad following the American invasion. Nearly
15,000 objects of inestimable scientific and cultural value were
stolen, although initial figures were over 10 times that number.
Iraq, called in ancient times Mesopotamia, the land between
the two rivers, developed some of the world’s first complex,
class-divided societies. The early peoples of Iraq were among
the first to build cities and to write. The National Museum contained
many of the material remnants of these and later cultures and
some of the greatest examples of their art.
There was an international outcry, and the United States military,
groping to set right a public relations disaster, sent in Marine
Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, in civilian life a Manhattan assistant
district attorney, to conduct an investigation. He was assisted
by a team drawn from various military services as well as by the
staff of the museum itself.
Bogdanos has published his findings in several journals and
in his book, Thieves of Baghdad.  A more detailed
account appeared in the prestigious American Journal of Archaeology
(AJA) last summer. 
The results of his investigation are limited to what looters
stole and how and when they probably stole it. When Bogdanos touches
on the role of American forces in the area at the time, he raises
more questions than he answers. Although he says the military
could have done more to protect the museum, he fails to indicate
More significantly, Bogdanos defends the invasion. He is neither
able nor inclined to investigate those responsible for putting
the museum in jeopardy in the first place: the architects of the
illegal assault on Iraq.
In fact, Bogdanos’s findings serve as an attempt by the
Bush administration to placate critics, particularly in academic
circles. This, and the reclaiming of roughly 5,000 stolen objects
though amnesties, raids and interdiction at borders, has provided,
the administration hopes, a necessary dénouement to one
of the great episodes of cultural vandalism of the twenty-first
In November, President Bush awarded Colonel Bogdanos a National
Humanities Medal. Since then, he has become something of a public
figure. He has gone on tour promoting his book in talks sponsored
by various institutions and groups.
In December, he penned an op-ed in the New York Times
deploring the sale of stolen antiquities, because the profits
can be used to fund the Iraqi insurgency. Most recently, he has
been made the chief of a special unit in the Manhattan DA’s
office to investigate art and antiquity theft.
Bogdanos’s team, some of whom were policemen in civilian
life, inspected administrative offices, restoration rooms, public
galleries and storage rooms over five weeks after April 2003.
The team concluded that there were three separate thefts from
the museum on April 8-12 by three different groups.
Over 120 administrative offices were completely ransacked and
their contents destroyed, as were the restoration rooms nearby.
Across a long corridor lay the public galleries. Bogdanos remarks
on the unusual restraint shown in the damage to the public galleries.
Although most of the display cases had been emptied by the staff
prior to the American invasion, only 28 of the 451 display cases
were damaged. Twenty-five objects were damaged, including the
remains of the Golden Harp of Ur.
Nevertheless, over 40 objects of considerable value were stolen
from the public galleries and from nearby restoration rooms. These
were all removed selectively and required some
knowledge of their importance: they included the Mask of Warka,
the Lioness Killing the Nubian, and artifacts from the Royal Burials
Two of the three aboveground storage rooms were looted. Their
steel doors, Bogdanos notes, showed no signs of being forced;
those who entered must have had access to the correct keys.
By the end of December 2003, Bogdanos’s team had determined
that over 3,000 items had been stolen from these rooms. Here the
looting was indiscriminate. Almost of all of the items recovered
during an amnesty came from this area of the museum.
The looting in a third area of the museum, the basement storage
rooms, appears to have been an inside job. Bogdanos discovered
that the steel doors here were also unlocked and again showed
no sign of forced entry.
Three of the four rooms here were unplundered, but in the corner
of the fourth, fishing-tackle boxes that had contained excavated
jewelry, cylinder seals, beads and the like were emptied. Nearby
boxes of less valuable material had not been touched. Bogdanos
concluded that the thieves had some knowledge of the contents
of this room.
It appears that the thieves came unprepared and had to depend
on burning packing foam to see around the room. They dropped keys
in the dark (electricity was not functioning), and thus missed,
apparently, discovering cabinets containing silver and gold coins
from the Greek, Roman and early Arab periods of Iraqi history
as well as valuable cylinder seals.
The thieves, however, did make off with many other cylinder
seals and other priceless objects. As Bogdanos observes, the cylinder
seals (small clay cylinders used in the early class societies
of Mesopotamia to mark ownership on goods sealed with clay) had
come not from the open market, but from archaeological expeditions,
where their context had been documented, enabling a much more
rigorous scientific study of their dates and cultural origins.
The last published estimate has been that the thieves took
over 5,000 cylinder seals and over 5,500 glass bottles, and pieces
People with some knowledge of the holdings committed two of
the three thefts, one in the public galleries and one in the basement
storage area. Most of these objects were intended for the international
antiquities market. Some of the major pieces, such as the Vase
of Warka, were returned. Iraqi, American or other international
forces have seized some.
Of the third area, the aboveground storage areas robbed by
ordinary Iraqis enraged at the Baathist regime, over 3,000 of
the estimated 3,138 stolen objects have been returned.
What was the American responsibility?
From a political point of view, Bogdanos’s AJA article
and the final chapters of Thieves of Baghdad represent
an apologia for the American role in the looting.
He presents a selective sequence of events from April 8, after
the American invasion of Baghdad, up until April 16, 2003, the
day the museum was guarded by American troops. He asks if American
troops in the area could have done more to protect the museum.
He implies that the answer is no.
According to Bogdanos, on April 8 the staff left the premises
of the museum at 11 a.m., when Iraqi troops took up positions.
Donny George, a director of the museum, attempted to return there
at 3 p.m., but was unable due to heavy fighting in the area.
On April 9, an American tank company, the 3rd Infantry Division
Task Force 1-64, moved to within 500 meters and began taking fire
from three of the four buildings in the museum compound.
The commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz, estimated
that 100-150 Iraqi soldiers were inside, armed with AK-47s and
RPGs. Tanks fired a round at the 2nd floor storage room of the
main museum building and at a position on the roof of one of the
buildings. Bogdanos notes that Schwartz contacted his superiors
before doing so.
Bogdanos defends the American action on the basis of international
law. He cites not only Geneva Convention protocols but also those
from the Hague Convention for the Preservation of Cultural Property
in Time of War, which states that designated cultural property
is to be immune from military conflict in time of war. The United
States has never ratified the Hague Convention, but the Joint
Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended adherence in 1995.
From a technical point of view, Bogdanos is correct. Both the
Geneva Conventions and the Hague Convention prohibit the use of
cultural property by defenders in wartime.
But there is something ludicrous and grotesque in an American
colonel speaking of the transgressions of the laws of war by a
small, nearly defenseless nation during the illegal invasion by
the world’s leading military power.
Article 11 of this Hague convention is specific about the obligation
of the aggressor in withdrawing immunity from a cultural area
that has been occupied by enemy forces. "Wherever possible,
[the attacker] shall first request the cessation of such violation
within a reasonable amount of time" and "immunity shall
be withdrawn from cultural property under special protection only
in exceptional cases of unavoidable military necessity, and only
for such time as that necessity continues. Such necessity can
only be established by the officer commanding a force the equivalent
of a division in size or larger. Whenever circumstances permit,
the opposing party [in this case, the Iraqi military occupying
the museum] shall be notified a reasonable time in advance, of
the decision to withdraw immunity." 
Bogdanos produces no evidence that the American forces attempted
to contact the Iraqi military, or any that Lt. Col Schwartz’s
superiors took the Hague Convention into consideration. In a Wall
Street Journal interview on April 17, 2003 (cited by Bogdanos),
Schwartz indicates that he stopped attacking positions at the
museum on his own authority.
Bogdanos’s analysis also fails to account for several
factors, some of which were indicated in reports that he cites
in his AJA article.
* The Guardian of April 14, 2003 reports that Abdul
Rehman Mugeer, a senior museum guard, told reporters that four
American tanks was initially placed in front of the museum on
Wednesday, April 9, and then withdrawn. Mugeer said that American
tanks briefly returned on Friday April 11, causing the looters
to flee. They returned once the Americans were gone
* Bogdanos notes that a stationary tank in heavy fighting is
a target, and so could not be placed in front of the museum. Does
this mean that on April 10 the area near the museum was secure?
* George, the museum director, said in an interview with the
Guardian on May 2, 2003 that upon hearing about the looting
on Saturday, April 12, he went the next day to the Marine headquarters
at the Palestine Hotel. He spoke to a Marine civil affairs officer,
Col. P.A. Zarcone, who assured him that the museum would be protected
and indicated that American forces might be there before George
returned to the museum later that day. In fact, it was three days
before American troops came to protect the museum.
What was the administration’s policy?
"Frankly," Bogdanos says, "those who argue that
US forces should have done more to protect the museum present
a compelling argument." "Why then," he asks, "did
US forces not protect [the museum] ... between the time it was
arguably safe to do so (whether on the evening of the 10th or
the forenoon of the 11th) and the time the staff returned on the
afternoon of 12 April?" Bogdanos adds, "The more pointed
question is why no unit before the battle had been given the specific
mission of protecting the museum from looting after Baghdad was
Bogdanos has some answers. He suggests that the speed of the
battle "outstripped the ability of Coalition planners to
plan for the security needs of a city the size of Baghdad."
He also argues that the war’s planners did not realize the
danger of looting because of the museum’s identification
with the regime.
And yet, as his own investigation has pointed out, two of the
three episodes of theft were not from those looters who identified
the museum with Baathism, but from criminals motivated by profit.
In fact, the government was warned about the danger of looting
to archaeological sites. In the Washington Post of April
14, 2003, archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute
in Chicago described discussions before the war with Pentagon
officials: "We told them looting was the biggest danger,
and I felt they understood that the National Museum was the most
important archaeological site in the entire country. It has everything
from every other site."
More recently, in a response to Mark Fisher, the former British
arts minister, in the Guardian on January 25, Patrick Boylan,
an emeritus professor of heritage policy at the City University
of New York, noted that during the first Gulf War, Dick Cheney
as defense secretary collected "detailed advice on the cultural
heritage of Iraq and Kuwait from around 80 international experts
and institutions." Included was information on the National
Museum in Baghdad.
The military used this knowledge during operation Desert Storm
in 1991, and, for the most part, did not damage any important
sites. After a 1993 report to Congress, Boylan notes, "The
Pentagon gave an assurance that 'similar steps will be taken
by the Unites States in future conflicts.’"
Boylan continues, "It is simply inconceivable that, during
the planning of the military action in 2002-03, the Pentagon did
not turn up the detailed heritage-protection rules and maps applied
so relatively successfully in the first Gulf War.... Someone or
some group must have taken a positive decision to scrap the US’s
established protection policies and ignore the January 1993 assurance
to Congress given by the defence department, still under Dick
Cheney at that time."
There is evidence that this was the case. For example, Washington
Post reporter Dana Priest said on April 11, 2003 on National
Public Radio’s "Washington Week in Review" that
"the looting is not something they didn’t predict. In
fact, I’ve ... talked to officials who believe that really
there needs to be a self-purging of the worst elements and that’s
what you’re actually seeing. It’s ... a conscious decision
by the administration not to get involved in it ..." .
A plan to loot Iraq?
The looting of the Iraqi National Museum must be taken in the
context of the cultural "policy" of the American invasion.
The burning of libraries and the looting of many other museums
accompanied the thefts from the Iraqi National Museum. Manuscripts
detailing the history of Iraq under Ottoman rule are gone forever
as are precious ancient copies of the Koran.
Before and after the installation of a puppet Iraqi government,
a great tragedy has unfolded in the looting of archaeological
sites. The Iraqi countryside in many places is covered by tells
or mounds of accumulated refuse from thousands of years of human
habitation. Looters, often using heavy equipment, are digging
up these sites for artifacts that can be sold on the international
McGuire Gibson has observed, "Hundreds and hundreds of
sites in the south are being looted, especially the Sumerian sites.
Many of these are in isolated areas. Any site that is not near
a town is probably being devastated.
"In May 2003, I was in an Army helicopter and flew down
and examined the sites in the south. We saw 25 sites and landed
at three. There were 250 looters at one, 300 at another, working
during the day. At one site, the Army drove them off, but we know
from reporters that they came back the next day." 
The former British arts minister, Mark Fisher, in his January
16 Guardian piece noted that "the [sites of] Sumerian
city-states (Lagash, Uruk and Larsa) have been so badly damaged
by looters that observers have described them as resembling devastated
lunar landscapes, with craters 5m deep."
In March, over 200 objects from the National Museum were recovered
in Najaf, but in a recent interview a former antiquities smuggler
remarked, "There is an ocean of material coming from Iraq
on a daily basis. This is the central point from where it is sold
on." One collector in New York "has organized a complete
system of looting archaeological sites in Iraq. He has thousands
of pieces in his collection." 
The beleaguered city of Samarra, once the capitol of the Abbasid
caliphate, was the home not only to the golden domed al-Askari
mosque, whose destruction on February ignited a wave of sectarian
killings, but also to archaeological excavations. The United States
military has built a berm around the city that cuts though archaeological
It has used the city’s famous al-Malwiya (winding) minaret
of the al-Jami mosque, featured on Iraqi currency, as a sniper
position, in clear contravention of the Hague Convention. The
mosque was built in 848-852. In retaliation, insurgents fired
a missile last year and damaged the minaret.
Most ominously, post-invasion Iraq has seen the assassination
of hundreds of Iraqi professionals and academics by pro-government
The recklessness of the Bush administration is not enough to
explain the vast destruction of physical materials and human intellectual
capital resulting from the US war and occupation of Iraq. Only
one conclusion is possible: a sustained and deliberate war against
Iraq’s rich cultural heritage began with the invasion three
 Matthew Bogdanos with William
Patrick, Thieves of Baghdad. One Marine’s Passion for
Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s
Greatest Stolen Treasures. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005. (Philip
Kennicott in the January 22 Washington Post is accurate
in saying that the voice of the book is "terribly strained"
and that "those who question that [Iraq] war—and war
in general—may find Bogdanos a repellent figure, symptomatic
of a new hubris in certain military and political circles."
There are "the faint rumblings of a military culture that
goes beyond mere duty and includes a disturbing degree of entitlement—to
bend rules, disdain criticism, and place oneself above the people
one serves." And what is one to make of a narrative that
not once but several times singles Ahmed Chalabi out for praise?)
 Mathew Bogdanos, "The Casualties of War: the Truth about
the Iraq Museum." American Journal of Archaeology,
109 (July 2005), pp. 477-526.
 The text of the Hague Convention can be found at: http://www.icomos.org/hague/
 Interview for Dig. The Archaeology Magazine for Kids,
August 24, 2004 http://www.digonsite.com/grownups/Gibson.html
 Richard Agnew, "The Insider" (interview with Michel
Van Rijn) ITP Business December 18, 2005 http://www.itp.net/business/features/details.php?id=3556