By Felicity Arbuthnot
The continuing destruction of Iraq’s history—ancient and modern—of homes, lives, and civil society under the watch of and at the hands of US and British troops—in defiance of a swathe of international law—is an uncanny and chilling mirror image of Pol Pot’s Year Zero.
The destruction and looting of the haunting wonders of the National Museum, the Mosul Museum, the two million irreplaceable books, the manuscripts, the records of the National Library, the University of Endowment with its unique collection of ancient Qur’ans, the vandalization of Babylon and Ur by the US Army, and the desecration of thousands of archeological sites—the very history of mankind—have been heart-wrenchingly recorded.
Not recorded is the equally illegal and ongoing planned destruction of every vestige of Iraq’s modern history, on the orders of the Supreme Committee for de-Baathification—Pol Pot couldn’t have bettered that tag.
In Basra, the dead heroes of the US-driven Iran-Iraq war were the early casualties, their great bronze figures lining part of the boulevard, arm pointing toward Iran. The statues had been controversial and subject of much debate in a nation invaded repeatedly throughout its history, its people utterly weary of war. But they were Iraq’s sons and they died in defense of their country. They are no more.
The museum up the road, commemorating more casualties of the eight-year conflagration that has sometimes been compared to World War I, was also destroyed and with it, the only remains of so many: identity cards, with personal details and photographs, hundreds upon hundreds of the silent dead, living, staring from wall after wall. Real people, many of them very young when they fell. The last vestiges of them have now vanished.A memorial for The Unknown Soldier.
Imagine if the Imperial War Museum in London, the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Arlington Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum, the Hiroshima Memorial were all razed to the ground. Unthinkable—but Iraq’s grief is, it seems, simply inconsequential.
That these are “grave breaches” under Additional Protocol 1 of the expanded Geneva Convention of 1977 and that they happened under the watching eye of the British army has not been addressed.
That the British army itself looted a vast statue of Iraq’s president and took it back to their Somerset, England base—at British tax payers’ expense—has also not been addressed, (Arbuthnot) and Protocol 1 also applies here.
However, the British had been told that their first duty was to head for the oil terminal and secure it (Nicol). Statues and museums clearly paled against the significance of Iraq’s oil.
Baghdad's many richly evocative landmarks include:
* The great Liberty Monument in Liberation Square, depicting struggles through the ages; bronze relief figures on marble, by the late Jewad Selim.
* The golden figure of Karamana, Ali Baba's housekeeper, from the 'Arabian Nights', surrounded by the great urns where the forty thieves hid. Water, in place of the boiling oil of the story, flows from a great vessel in her hands by Mohammed Ghani: 'the exuberant sculpture', an object of wonder.
* The Hammurabni Obelisk, in Qhatan Square, honouring the great Babylonian King and lawmaker (1792-1750 BC) by Salen Al-Karaghoulli. The original Obelisk isin the Louvre, Paris.
* Al-Khalil bin Ahmad Al-Faharidi (AD 718-786) staue in Masbah Park, honouring the philologist and grammarian who wrote the first Arab dictionary and works on melody and rhythm.
* Abbas bin Firnas, ninth century philosopher, poet and inventor, is immortalised by Sculpture Badri Al-Sammarra'i, near the Airport. His theories and experiments on the possibility of human flight earned him the nameof 'First Arab Flyer.'
* Hammurabi's robed statue, by Mohammed Ghani, graces central Haifa Street, utterly evocative, Babalonia's wonders revisited.
* The Arab horseman in Mansour Square, by Miran Al-Sa'adi celebrates the Arab love of horsemanship and its association with 'gallantry,courage and generosity'.
* Abu-Nasr Al-Farabi (AD 874-950) created by Ismail Fattah in 1965, one of the Arab world's greatest ancinet philosophers and academics, stands in Zawra Park. He was 'The Second Teacher', the First being Aristotle.
* Yahya Al-Wasiti, painter and calligrapher, completed his extraordinary illustrations of Maqamat Al-Hariri,in 1223. An original manuscript is in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. The statue celebrating him is in Zawra Park, by Ismael Fattah.
In the north of Baghdad, early violations by the US Army included statue-toppling and squatting in palaces: Using a national historic building as a “command center” is also a violation.
It is incumbent in the region for each leader to leave behind him something more magnificent that his predecessor. The palaces are both national assets—not American ones—and tomorrow’s history. National buildings, too, are protected—not free board and lodging for illegal invaders. Reports too numerous to cite recorded US soldiers returning home with palace “souvenirs,” including priceless artifacts, that they had thieved.
Prosecutions have been minimal or missing.
Over 1,500 modern paintings and sculptures disappeared from the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, where one would gaze in awe at the wondrous imagination that created unique beauty.
In June 1993, an American missile killed the museum’s curator, Leila Al Attar, during one of numerous illegal bombings. Now her legacy, too, is no more. “A cultural disaster,” nearly unmentionable, was how UNESCO’s Mounir Bouchenak described that cultural vandalism (Tribune).
Thank goodness the troops made sure to perfectly preserve the Oil Ministry.
Bit by bit and unnoticed, every statue, every landmark that was the vibrant beauty of Iraq is being destroyed. History’s hallmarks, which enchanted Baghdadis and visitors, marked the passing of a personality, commemorated Gilgamesh, the Thousand and One Nights, and the earliest great epic story, Sinbad the Sailor—Iraq’s triumphs and tears.
Ironically, “international guidelines protecting cultural property against damage and theft, date back to the American Civil War.” That carnage “led to the 1863 Lieber Code, protecting libraries, scientific collections and works of art” and was strengthened by the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
The Nuremberg Trials after World War II sentenced Nazi officials to death for destruction of cultural property (Gutman and Rieff). This did not deter US soldiers from the first truly breathtaking act of desecration.
Michel Aflaq was the Syrian born, French educated, Christian “Father of Pan Arabism.” He was a towering intellect who, with the Muslim Salah Al-Din Al-Bitar whom he met while studying in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, created the political movement that would come to dominate Syria and Iraq in the modern world. Thinker, philosopher, student of Nietzsche, Gide, Tolstoy, French theorist Henri Bergson, Aflaq together with Bitar founded France’s Arab Student Union. Eventually they turned their energies to politics, culminating in the formation of the Arab Baath Party with Jalil Said in 1947, with a secular focus and Islam’s significance acknowledged. They intended to contribute to worldwide emancipation, with a central tenet being that there were Arabs before there were Muslims—thus the ideal of the Arab state.
For Aflaq, “theorist of integrity … incorruptible,” a central tenet of the movement was representing “the Arab spirit … the Arab nation, emphasizing culture rather than politics (Simons). He survived imprisonment, high office, and the region’s turmoils. He died in Paris in 1989 and was buried in Baghdad where his domed mausoleum and a statue in his honor occupied a 10 square km site. In September 2003, the US Army leveled all of this to earth, on the orders of “Viceroy” Bremer (Iraq-USA Politics). Imagine the Lincoln Memorial being flattened!
Vandalizing religious and historic monuments is illegal under the The Hague Convention. Desecrating a grave is a criminal act of the lowest order, in any society.
Driving into central Baghdad from the west, one saw in Nasr Square, Sa’doun Street, a small, resolute figure gracing a plinth. It was Abdul Muhsin Al-Sa’doun. Born in Nasiriya in 1889, he became minister of justice, then in 1922 minister of the interior, then prime minister four times: a youthful, political shooting star. In his fourth term as prime minister, in 1929, he left the parliamentary chamber, went into a side room and shot himself rather than give in to British Colonial demands.
His statue, made by an Italian sculptor in 1933, stands no more, razed shortly after Michel Aflaq’s, and reportedly melted down. Reports differ as to who was responsible, but it is not disputed that it happened under the US Army’s watch—even if not at their hands.
In January 2004, the US Army 1st Armored Division did the unthinkable. They made a camp beneath the great turquoise dome of the Shaheed (Martyr) Memorial for the dead of the Iran-Iraq war, where the names of 500,000 dead are inscribed in marble so that their names, at least, live on. Graffiti was sprayed on the names, and the division’s motto obliterated others.
The museum where foreign dignitaries and families had brought items in honor of the fallen was, of course, looted. The memorial was built with a split dome as if to allow the souls of the dead to fly heavenward. A great fountain flowed to the courtyard below—representing endless tears or eternity as represented by the Euphrates river, depending on whom one asked; a place of memory, in any case, for those who visited and found solace there.
On November 2, the landmark statue of Abu Ja`far Al-Mansour (713-775 CE), founder of Baghdad, was destroyed by a bomb. No Baghdadi, Iraqi or Arab, would, arguably, blow up this revered historical figure, creator of the city that, over the centuries, has been named “The Paris of the Ninth Century,” “Mother of the World,” “Abode of Peace,” “Round City,” “Abode of Beauty,” and “Triumph of the Gods” (Antoon).
While journalists are being shot and Iraqis are lucky to return from a domestic outing in one piece and not in a body bag, it is impossible for UNESCO to draw up comprehensive records of the daily destruction of Iraq’s heritage: numerous haunting and superb statues, sculptures, and monuments. This surely barely scratches the surface.
An important and chilling plea appeared on a Web site that, in the light of post-invasion destruction, has horrific clarity (uruknet.info). The plea is signed by an “Iraqi Tear” (most “liberated” Iraqis are more fearful of revealing their identities now than they ever were under Saddam) and refers to the Iraqi’s place in history: “Please help us protect these monuments.”
“Tear” asserts that the Supreme Committee for de-Baathification has now ordered the razing of the turquoise Shaheed Monument and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier to leave only rivers of tears. The Unknown Soldier was completed in 1959, the year after the revolution that, ironically, toppled the British-imposed royal rule that had opened the door to foreign monopolies plundering the country’s oil wealth. the monument was in homage to all those who over the centuries “fell in defense of the country’s dignity and pride.”
When the Taliban ordered the destruction of the ancient Bamyan statues in Afghanistan, the world, including the British and American governments, was outraged. Now, from Ur to the threat to the Unknown Soldier, the British and Americans are guilty of crimes against humanity and heritage of historic enormity.
In June 2005, the World Monument Society for the first time declared an entire country, Iraq, to be an endangered site: “Every significant cultural site in Iraq is at risk today.” It also emphasized “preserving 20th century structures.”A spokesperson for the Iraqi “government” boasted after the illegal invasion in 2003: “We came to power on a CIA train.” By a different route, so did Pol Pot. Spot the difference.
Antoon, Sinan. “They Came to Baghdad.” Al-Ahram Weekly, April 17-23, 2003.
Arbuthnot, Felicity. Interview with a British army spokesman.
Gutman, Roy and David Rieff, eds. Crimes of War. W.W. Norton, 1999.
International Herald Tribune, 24th May 2003.
Iraq-USA Politics. 10 Sept. 2003.
Nicol, Mark. Last Round. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2005.
“Pol Pot in Cambodia 1975-1979.” www.thehistoryplace.com. Accessed 14 Nov. 2005.
Simons, Geoff. From Sumer to Saddam. Macmillan, 1994.
Www.uruknet.info. accessed 2 Nov. 2005.