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UNESCO Announces Iraq Mission As Cultural Loss Continues

BY Admin  April 15, 2003 at 2:20 PM EDT

The Paris-based organization says its team will study the conditions of museums and historical sites, identify ways of restoring stolen artifacts and seek out potential donors to fund the massive rebuilding effort.

UNESCO says the team will travel to Iraq “when conditions permit.”

The announcement comes as cultural losses continue to mount in Baghdad. The Islamic Library, housing centuries-old manuscripts, burned down Monday. Nearby, the Religious Affairs Ministry was looted and burned, resulting in the loss of invaluable religious texts.

The team of about 30 Iraqi and international experts will first meet at UNESCO headquarters in Paris Thursday, where, according the organization, they will “attempt to draw an inventory of recent cultural destruction.”

The meeting will outline a plan to recover and safeguard this heritage, and will identify those artifacts requiring priority attention.

UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura said in a statement Tuesday that the organization’s “recent experience in other war-torn and post-conflict situations has shown that culture can play a key role in consolidating the peace process, restoring national unity and building hope for the future.”

Responding to a plea from UNESCO to protect cultural sites from further damage, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a statement Monday, saying “the people of the United States value the archeological and cultural heritage of Iraq that documents over 10,000 years of the development of civilization.”

Powell said the State Department’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs “will help Iraqis and international experts in their efforts to restore artifacts and the catalogs of antiquities that were damaged by looters.”

He added that the United States is working with INTERPOL, the international police organization, to prevent resale of stolen artifacts on the black market.

“The Iraqi people, as well as members of the Coalition forces and others, are warned not to handle these artifacts,” Powell said. “In particular, Americans are asked not to purchase or otherwise trade in such objects as they belong to the nation of Iraq and are stolen property.”

U.S. archeological organizations and UNESCO say they provided U.S. officials with information about Iraq’s cultural heritage and archeological sites months before the war began.

McGuire Gibson, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, said he and other experts met with Pentagon officials in late January, presenting them with a list of vulnerable sites.

“We told them the looting was the biggest danger, and I felt that they understood that the National Museum was the most important archaeological site in the entire country. It has everything from every other site,” Gibson said.

At U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, reporters asked U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks Tuesday why forces had not done more to prevent museum looting. He said it was “simply not useful to speculate” about what happened, or to think about what could have been done differently.

“I don’t think that anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the Iraqi people,” Brooks said.

Iraq is the site of ancient Mesopotamia, and is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” Its cultural heritage goes back thousands of years, and includes many civilizations, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims.