Iraq's Looted National Museum Reopens

Baghdad unfurled its own red carpet Monday for a cultural event as significant for Iraq as the Oscars were for Hollywood. In the place of movie stars were politicians, business tycoons and other Iraqi VIPs on hand for the reopening of the Iraq National Museum, six years after it closed amid fierce fighting that marked the American military's push into the capital. A half-mile-long queue of vehicles clogged the roads, negotiating security checkpoints as well as police officers on hand to make sure no harm befell Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other dignitaries. "All streets leading to Allawi [district] are shut down; turn back!" a policeman barked through his loudspeaker.

When the U.S. military first invaded Iraq's capital, it decided to tread carefully around the museum, aware of its trove of priceless, centuries-old artifacts. But the insurgents had other ideas and fired on the invaders from the museum's rooftop, drawing return fire that seriously damaged the building. In April 2003, looters ransacked the facility, making off with thousands of irreplaceable artifacts from a collection that dated back six millennia, encompassing the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The thieves soon spirited the artifacts to other countries, notably Jordan, Syria and the United States.

On Monday, officials proudly put on display 6,000 pieces that had been recovered from among the more than 15,000 items taken from the museum. The works were displayed in seven of 23 exhibit rooms, including the Assyrian and Islamic halls, which were reconstituted with the help of Italian art experts. "We do not want only to be proud of our past, but we want also to be partners and active participants in the human civilization," Maliki told the crowd. "Opening this museum is a stage at which we stop to derive morals and lessons, the first being that … [Iraq] is not a nation without roots."

Maliki, who also toured the facility, praised the broad campaign to recover his country's stolen treasures, thanking all those countries that helped in the effort. Since 2003, the United States has partnered with Iraq on efforts such as the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, a $14 million program to make improvements at the museum, establish a conservation institute and provide training for Iraqi archaeologists and museum specialists. The U.S. also returned more that 1,000 recovered artifacts to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington that are being repatriated. "Iraq's cultural heritage is a gift to the cultural heritage of mankind and we are delighted to assist in its preservation," said a U.S. official in Baghdad.

Two weeks ago a group of Iraqi archaeologists and anthropologists asked Maliki not to reopen the museum "prematurely," insisting that it needed more time for various significant pieces to be properly evaluated, cataloged and stored. Maliki rejected the request and at the reopening said the museum should become a leading center for research into human civilization. "We want the Iraqi museum to be in the lead of world museums," he declared.

Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities launched the rebuilding effort in 2006. Only a third of the damaged works have been restored, said Abdul Zahra al-Talqani, ministry spokesman. Although thousands of works were ripped off—some apparently by or with the collusion of museum staff—many of the most important pieces were saved because they had been locked away in vaults at Iraq's Central Bank. Among them are the Treasures of Nimrud—more than 600 pieces of gold, precious stones and ornaments dating back to 800 B.C. The 100-pound collection is not among the artifacts Iraqis may currently view at the reopened museum.

In fact, most Iraqis will not be able to see any of the works on display. The museum will be available only to college and school groups and for some events. Officials also plan to ask travel agents to arrange visits by groups of tourists such as those who now visit neighboring countries like Syria and Turkey. But with the war in Iraq still dragging on—albeit at a low grade—attracting tourists could take as long as it took to reopen the museum.