By Travis J. Tritten. Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, January 25, 2009
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — Shepherd boys scale the ancient tower at Aqar Quf with ease.
The ziggurat’s clay-brick walls have eroded into steep cliffs over the past 3,500 years, and the shepherds go hand over hand on a well-known path to the peak. There are no guards blocking the climb, no visitors to watch the spectacle.
On the desert below, the shepherds’ flock grazes among the gutted remains of a museum and restaurant.
The Aqar Quf ziggurat is among the 10 oldest structures in Iraq and once drew hundreds of visitors each week from nearby Baghdad. But the ancient site was abandoned and stripped by looters during the war.
As violence subsides, the government in this rural corner of the Abu Ghraib district is struggling to get national funding to reopen the Aqar Quf historic site and bolster the local economy.
“All these people in the villages get an advantage from [the site] because people come and spend money,” said Alaa Mard Asker, the manager of a local government council who is heading the effort.
The Aqar Quf site is built around the craggy ziggurat and includes a 500-year-old temple complex and a looted visitor center. The surrounding area also has an ancient factory used to make the ziggurat’s clay bricks and could contain more buried artifacts, according to Iraqi officials.
The United States agreed to fund removal of debris from the area on the condition the local council would work with the national government to create a renovation plan, according to Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, which oversees the area.
Over the past six months, local officials have drafted plans to rebuild the historic site, but support from the Iraq Ministry of History and Ruins has not materialized.
Many of the country’s rural areas are in desperate need of funding for local infrastructure and reconstruction. The national government, which holds the purse strings in Iraq, has been slow to meet needs outside of Baghdad, leading areas such as Abu Ghraib to feel neglected.
Alaa walked around the abandoned visitor center Monday, pointing to trash-strewn patches of sand that he said could be transformed with ministry funding.
One patch is planned for a fountain and garden, another will be a game field, he said. A new administration building would be built, along with brick walkways to match the style of the ruins.
The ziggurat has been undamaged by the war and stands as it has for millennia. Along with an adjacent 500-year-old temple complex, it must be preserved and will not be touched by new construction, Alaa said.
Legend says a king built the ziggurat around the 15th century B.C. to reach heaven and kill God. The clay bricks and layers of reed mats, culled from a once fertile river valley, have survived the changing environment and the Middle East’s turbulent history.
But little is left of the modern administration building, museum, event stage and restaurant that once served the picnickers and students who visited the site before the Iraq war.
Inside the museum, the rooms are dark and the floors are covered with shards of glass. Artifacts such as etched stones and pottery are mixed with piles of debris. Some museum pieces were moved to safety in Baghdad and the rest were lost to looting, Alaa said.
“When Saddam fell, they stole most of the artifacts,” he said.
Ministry of History and Ruins officials recently visited the damage and requested a site map.
It was unclear if the request signaled progress toward funding. But Aqar Quf might have new hope in the coming weeks.
Elections this month could pick politicians who are more concerned with issues outside the capital and help turn on the funding spigot for Aqar Quf and the Abu Ghraib area, Alaa said.
“We hope they will pay attention to us and give us some money,” he said.
The United States has already provided more than $8 million for public reconstruction work in the Abu Ghraib district, a stretch of land between Baghdad and Fallujah. Similar coalition funding has been pumped into work across the country.
As the war winds down, the U.S. is attempting to shift responsibility for reconstruction projects such as Aqar Quf, which was rated as a key project in the area by Company C when it deployed there in May.
“We think it should be an Iraqi process,” said Capt. David Uthlaut, the company commander.
The coalition could provide an initial boost of construction funding for the site but all planning and funding should be coordinated between the local and national government, Uthlaut said.
“The intent is not only to install a tourist site but to provide jobs for this area,” he said. “They’ve been grinding through the process since August.”