‘Cultural cleansing’ of Iraq?

June 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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‘Cultural cleansing’ of Iraq?

Museums looted, libraries burned and academics murdered: seven years after the US-led invasion, a new book gives a sobering picture of the cultural situation in Iraq


Thanks to the work of Arab, European and US journalists, scholars and academics the tragedy that has overtaken Iraq’s cultural heritage since the US-led invasion in 2003 has become widely known, with an international consensus having formed on at least this aspect of the country’s recent history.

Following the entry of US forces into Baghdad in April 2003, a wave of looting broke out that targeted the country’s cultural institutions, with the National Museum of Iraq, which holds one of the world’s most important collections of Mesopotamian antiquities, being looted, the National Library and Archives burned and other institutions up and down the country, including museums, archaeological sites, schools and universities looted or destroyed.

In an interview that appeared in this newspaper at the time, Mounir Bouchenaki, then assistant director-general for culture at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, in Paris, spoke of his shock at crunching through the 20cm of ash covering the floors of the burned-out Iraqi National Library on a fact-finding mission to Baghdad.

“The reality [at the National Museum] is really terrible,” Bouchenaki told the Weekly. “There is not a single door or cupboard that has not been opened or smashed, even the museum safe that contained the salaries of the staff. Every single piece of equipment has disappeared, even chairs and computers. When you see this terrible situation, you feel that people are still in shock.”

While initial reports that spoke of some tens of thousands of objects being stolen from the National Museum were later reduced to some 25 to 40 major objects missing, with some 15,000 others, including statuary, cylinder seals and pottery items, smashed or unaccounted for, the overall picture only worsened over the years that followed.

Security at Iraq’s thousands of archaeological and other cultural sites proved impossible to maintain, and looting reached epidemic proportions. An eye-witness account by journalists Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton, quoted in this newspaper in 2006, contained a sobering account of the situation in the south of the country.

“The toll on the Sumerian city states located along the ancient river beds in southern Iraq has been devastating,” Garen and Carleton wrote. “Sites such as Isin, Adab, Zabalam, Shuruppak and Umma have been so badly damaged that almost nothing remains of the top three metres. Flying by helicopter over the site [of Umma] reveals an unimaginably grim reality, a scene of complete destruction that unfolds before you as a sea of holes in the desert. One can only wonder at the loss of history, the untold number of looted artifacts and documents of our collective past that will never make it to the Iraq Museum and into the world’s consciousness.”

Garen and Carleton’s account appeared in one of the earliest books to deal in detail with the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage following the 2003 US-led invasion, Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster’s edited volume The Looting of the Iraqi Museum, Baghdad, reviewed in the Weekly in November 2006.

Further accounts subsequently appeared, some of them reviewed in this newspaper, including another edited volume by British academic Peter Stone and Lebanese journalist Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, reviewed in the Weekly in September 2008, and US academic Lawrence Rothfield’s The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, probably the most detailed account to date of the failure to provide security for cultural heritage in Iraq after the US-led invasion. This was reviewed in the Weekly in May 2009.

In his book, Rothfield expressed the view that had the invasion and subsequent occupation been better planned for, and had the warnings of many individuals of different nationalities, including American, Iraqi and British, been heeded, then much, possibly most, of the destruction that occurred could have been avoided.

However, he also discussed what he called the “slow-motion disaster” of the looting of Iraq’s archaeological and cultural sites, already highlighted by Garen and Carleton some years before. Many of these sites are still unprotected and even unexcavated, with finds being spirited abroad and sold on to unscrupulous dealers and collectors despite the existence of legal and other safeguards.

One estimate, quoted in Rothfield’s book, suggests that between 400,000 and 600,000 artifacts were taken illegally from Iraqi archaeological sites between 2003 and 2005 alone, “an astounding figure,” Rothfield wrote, representing “three to four times the number of artifacts gathered since the 1920s by the National Museum of Iraq.”

In the absence of meaningful security at many sites, and with looting being “one of the few roads to riches in Iraq,” it seems that this looting is continuing.

An answer to why this should be the case is contained in the latest publication to deal with the fate of Iraq’s cultural heritage since the 2003 invasion, Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered, a volume of essays by researchers from various countries edited by US and Canadian academics Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq Y. Ismael.

According to the editors’ introduction, the disasters that have overtaken Iraq’s cultural sites and institutions since the 2003 US-led invasion cannot, pace Rothfield, be put down to bad planning alone.

On the contrary, they write, the chaos that has overwhelmed Iraq since the first American tanks entered Baghdad seven years ago was carefully planned, and the “cleansing” of Iraqi culture, like the eradication of the country’s educated class, a further effect of the invasion, was a significant US war aim.

“The war planners quite consciously and deliberately aimed for the destruction of the Iraqi state. They did so because a strong Iraq was an impediment to American imperial designs and Israeli insistence on unimpeded regional hegemony… Given the scope of the destruction that took place on their watch, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the occupiers understood that damaging the cultural underpinnings of Iraqi identity would also hasten the collapse of modern day Iraq.”

“In just the same way, the apparent indifference and failure to respond to the decimation of the Iraqi intellectual class through targeted assassinations points to the conclusion that Iraq’s occupiers and their allies had little interest in preserving the priceless human resources represented by Iraq’s educated elite. Oil mattered and so Oil Ministry records were protected. The files of the Interior Ministry that would certainly have compromised both Americans and Israelis mattered and so they were protected. In contrast, priceless archaeological artifacts and leading scholars faced the looters and assassins alone.”

Cultural Cleansing in Iraq contains essays by various hands on what is known about the losses suffered by Iraq’s cultural heritage over the past seven years, including an overview of the destruction by Zainab Bahrani, a professor of archaeology at Columbia University in New York, and a particularly valuable account of losses to the country’s libraries and archives by Nabil al-Tikriti.

This indicates that 25 percent of the book holdings of the Iraqi National Library and Archives were destroyed during the fires of 10-13 April 2003. Some 60 percent of the country’s Ottoman and Hashemite archives were destroyed. While some 600-700 Islamic manuscripts were apparently destroyed in the fires that destroyed the library of the Ministry of Awqaf on 13-14 April 2003, a further 5,250 had been moved off site, though their whereabouts is unknown. The Ministry’s collection of 45,000 printed books, including rare Ottoman Turkish works, was destroyed.

Al-Tikriti writes that the 47,000 manuscripts held in the Dar al-makhtutat al-iraqiyya, the Iraqi state manuscript collection, were moved off site before the invasion, though once again their current condition is unknown. The entire collection of the Bayt al-Hikma, a research facility, was lost. Over half the book collection of the Iraqi Academy of Sciences was destroyed. The condition of provincial libraries and manuscript collections is not known, though al-Takriti writes that the Centre for Gulf Studies in Basra was destroyed, along with the entire collection of Ottoman documents

One of the strangest episodes was the removal, by the Iraqi-American writer Kanan Makiya, of the entire Baath Party archives from Party headquarters in Baghdad and its deposition in California with US government assistance. This parallels the US’s confiscation of millions of pages of captured Iraqi government documents, now held in a facility in Qatar.

However, despite the value of this documentary material perhaps the book’s main interest lies in its account of the killings of the Iraqi intelligentsia since the 2003 invasion. In a series of useful essays, contributors to the book summarise what is known about the victims and perpetrators of these killings, arguing that the targeting of members of the country’s intelligentsia, either killing them or driving them abroad, has been a direct consequence of the occupation.

According to Philip Marfleet, reader in Refugee Studies at the University of East London in the UK, the targeting of the intelligentsia in Iraq can be compared to the “instrumental use of terror… formalized by American intelligence agencies, notably the CIA,” in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, El-Salvador and Nicaragua, in the second half of the last century.

Was there an “El-Salvador Option” at work in Iraq, he asks, quoting testimony provided to a British parliamentary commission by Ismail Jalili, former president of the Arab Medical Association, in 2007. Following “a methodical period of looting and destruction of Iraq’s heritage, infrastructure, universities and libraries,” there may have been “a plan to drain Iraq of its intellectuals and experts and dismantle its infrastructure along a pattern known as the ‘El-Salvador Option’ used in that country by the Pentagon.”

Whether or not there was such a plan, the aim of which would have been to bring the state to its knees and “wipe the state clean,” it seems clear that Iraq’s intelligentsia has indeed been targeted and that little or no attempt has been made either by the Iraqi authorities or earlier by coalition forces to bring the perpetrators to justice.

According to a contribution by Max Fuller and Dirk Adriaensens, hundreds of Iraqi academics, both Sunni and Shia, have been targeted in organised killings since 2003, with no group or groups claiming responsibility. In cases of kidnapping ransoms have usually not been demanded, and there is evidence of state or para-state forces having been involved in at least some of the killings, as well as the country’s various militias.

Fuller and Adriaensens comment that to date “none of the killers have been caught, and we are no closer to a detailed understanding of this horrific phenomenon.” In their view, “it is important to recognize that what we actually appear to be witnessing is an institutionalized culture of impunity that is a common aspect of state-sanctioned terror and is endemic in the violence of counterinsurgency conflicts.”

It is likely that “the US and the UK established the forces that offer by far the most likely means for the killings,” they write. “For the immediate future, decimating Iraq’s professional middle class ensures that the country remains dependent on US and other foreign expertise, providing a powerful means of political leverage.”

Both Fuller and Adriaensens are members of the BRussells Tribunal, an international coalition of intellectuals and activists which has collected and published the names of Iraqi academics known to have been killed over the past seven years. The full list is available on the Tribunal’s website. The edited version, printed as an appendix to this book, runs to 19 closely printed pages containing many hundreds of names.

Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered, Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael & Tareq Y. Ismael, eds., London: PlutoPress, 2010. pp298

Reviewed by David Tresilian

Article published in Al Ahram

Hans-C. von Sponeck: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq – How much can a people take?

January 30, 2010 at 1:12 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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  Everyone in Baghdad knew Mohammed Hikmet Ghani. The city was full of his sculptures. They were important reminders of the richness of Mesopotamian history and culture. Iraq had seen much better days. With the few materials Ghani had in his possession, he struggled to convert his artistic spirit into physical form. All he produced during those years reflected the suffering of the Iraqi people forced to live under sanctions and dictatorship. 

Just before the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, he had completed a first mould of a group of figures, women standing in a circle and gazing at a box in front of them. “They want to know what is in the box, what destiny is awaiting them. But they do not have the key to open the box”, explained the famous sculptor. The artist and the people anxiously hoped for an end of 13 years of sanctions. Instead they were about to face a devastation and onslaught of unimaginable ferocity. Many are dead today and the artist lives as a refugee in Amman. 

The contours of the human tragedy resulting from the illegal attack of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation are becoming more and more visible. Much has still to be discovered and for the wrongdoing a court of justice has yet to be found. In the meantime, the coffers of evidence are filling up.

‘Cultural Cleansing  in Iraq’, a recently published account of the extent of destruction of Iraq’s heritage and the assassination of the country’s intellectual elite has added a new and gruesome chapter to the story of post-war Iraq. Through this publication co-authored by the BRussells Tribunal, twelve specialists, both Iraqi and non-Iraqi, have made it possible to grasp more fully the immense crimes against humanity for which many but foremost the US/UK occupation has to take the responsibility.

Continue Reading Hans-C. von Sponeck: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq – How much can a people take?…

Book: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq

December 15, 2009 at 2:58 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Middle East Studies

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 If you are looking for a textbook that provides a …

(Gilbert Achcar, Professor at the School )

  If you are looking for a textbook that provides a view of Middle East politics free of colonial bias, … [this] book plainly fulfil this fundamental requirement. Informed by the empathy of belonging as well as by a critical objectivity enhanced by a long experience in teaching the region to students … , this book is a safe guide to the political intricacies of the Middle East.

(Gilbert Achcar, Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London)

  Cultural Cleansing in Iraq
Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered


Product Description

Why did the invasion of Iraq result in cultural destruction and killings of intellectuals? Convention sees accidents of war and poor planning in a campaign to liberate Iraqis. The authors argue instead that the invasion aimed to dismantle the Iraqi state to remake it as a client regime.

 Post-invasion chaos created conditions under which the cultural foundations of the state could be undermined. The authors painstakingly document the consequences of the occupiers’ willful inaction and worse, which led to the ravaging of one of the world’s oldest recorded cultures. Targeted assassination of over 400 academics, kidnapping and the forced flight of thousands of doctors, lawyers, artists and other intellectuals add up to cultural cleansing.

 This important work lays to rest claims that the invasion aimed to free an educated population to develop its own culture of democracy.

 About The Author

Tareq Y. Ismael is a professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary, Canada & President of the International Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies at eastern Mediterranean University. His most recent works include Middle East Politics Today (2001), Turkey’s Foreign Policy in the 21st Century (2003), & Iraq: The Human Cost of History (2003).

 Raymond William Baker is Professor of International Politics, Trinity College, USA, and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. His most recent book is Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists.

Shereen T. Ismael is an Assistant Professor of Social Work and MSW Field Coordinator in the School of Social Work, Carleton University. In addition to her book Child Poverty and the Canadian Welfare State: from Entitlement to Charity (2006), she is the editor of Globalization: Policies, Challenges and Responses (1999).

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