Building of Iraqi police barracks threatens world heritage site
Michael Howard in Erbil
Thursday November 1, 2007 The Guardian
The construction of a large police barracks close to the Great Mosque of Samarra and its famed spiral minaret is imperilling another of Iraq's precious historical sites, Unesco and senior archaeologists have warned.
Work on the building and a training centre for 1,500 Iraqi policemen is continuing in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, despite the addition this summer of the ninth-century remains of the capital of the Abbasid dynasty to Unesco's list of endangered world heritage sites.
There are fears that the police compound will prove an irresistible target for insurgents, and that the construction and operation of the barracks will damage the Samarra Archaeological City, one of the country's largest and most valuable historical areas, the Art Newspaper reported in its November issue.
Unesco officials said the dire security situation in Samarra had prevented them from taking any measures to secure and protect the site. Neither Unesco's office for Iraq, which is currently based in Amman, nor Iraq's board of state antiquities and heritage, had been consulted about the location of the new police building.
There were similar protests after reports of damage to ancient sites by US forces in Babylon and Nineveh, and international experts say the future looks bleak for Iraq's ancient heritage. Conservation projects in Iraq have stalled and many archaeologists have left the country.
Samarra's department of antiquities was looted and burned in May.
Nearly 50,000 packs of playing cards meant to help US troops avoid unnecessary damage to ancient sites and curb the illegal trade of stolen artefacts are to be shipped to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as training sites in the United States. Each card displays an artefact or site and gives a tip on how to avoid damaging historic treasures.
Two weeks ago, the police headquarters in Samarra, a focal point for the Sunni insurgency, was attacked by a suicide bomber in a truck backed up by 60 gunmen. Nearby buildings were destroyed.
A Unesco spokeswoman told the Guardian yesterday that it "remains very vigilant regarding the state of conservation of the Samarra Archaeological City".
One of the architectural jewels in Samarra is the 52-metre spiral minaret which is part of the Great Mosque of Caliph al-Mutawakkil, built in the ninth century. The minaret, which features on an Iraqi banknote, survived countless invasions and wars, but was badly damaged by insurgent fire in 2005 when American soldiers used it as a lookout post. The area close to the Tigris river also boasts remains of palaces, hunting parks and racetracks.
Alistair Northedge, professor of Islamic art and archaeology at the Sorbonne, told the Guardian the decision to base the police training centre so close to the ancient city was "quite unnecessary", and urged Iraqi authorities to use the acres of space elsewhere.
The lack of security has also interfered with the reconstruction of the city's al-Askari shrine, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam. The destruction of its gold dome by Sunni militants in February 2006 caused outrage among Iraqi Shia and unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that pushed the country towards civil war.