Was the U.S. unfairly blamed for damage to Iraq's heritage?

Last Saturday I wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion deploring the archeological fraternity’s relentless and exaggerated criticism of the U.S. for allowing damage to Iraq’s heritage. From the Baghdad museum to ancient sites around Iraq–most prominently the site of Babylon, where coalition forces had a base–the U.S. and allies were constantly berated by top academics and museum experts for either allowing looters to operate or for directly perpetrating the damage. I had followed the story for some time, and I had even made a couple of near-suicidal attempts to reach Babylon during the insurgency because nobody I knew in Baghdad would risk taking me out there. It was in serious bad-guy territory and impossible to access without choppers or armed escorts. That was true of most ancient sites.

I was always mystified therefore by the constant stream of invective from Western experts about the depredation to such places. How did they know? Who was out there acting as their eyes and ears? How trustworthy were such sources? Each time our scholars made disapproving noises, loud echoes followed in the Western and then Mideastern world media. At a period when the war hung in the balance, when Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims wrestled with the question of whether to view the U.S. as latter-day Crusaders or as a liberating force, you can imagine the effect of such media headlines.

I didn’t say it this way in the article but I will now: Such heated criticism must certainly have inflamed nationalist sentiment and led directly to the loss of lives. A Jan. 15, 2005 BBC report, for example, began with the following statement: “Coalition forces in Iraq have caused irreparable damage to the ancient city of Babylon, the British Museum says.” It continued with such details as “sandbags have been filled with precious archeological fragments and 2,600 year old paving stones have been crushed by tanks” and that long trenches were dug “through archeological deposits.”

In my WSJ article I identified the top two noisemakers as Elizabeth Stone from Stony Brook University and John Curtis, head of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern Department. Dr. Curtis was quoted in the BBC report as saying that the allied presence at Babylon was “tantamount to establishing a military camp around Stonehenge.”

What I didn’t have room to say in my op-ed piece was: How on Earth could the allies protect the site if they didn’t have a military presence there? And why didn’t Dr. Curtis mention that the “military camp around Stonehenge” had already been built by Saddam, who kept a tank regiment there? Saddam also damaged the site in countless other ways such as building a palace atop Babylon’s central hill. Dr. Curtis did not mention how much damage was left over from Saddam’s time–for obvious reasons: He hadn’t seen the place at the time.

Doctors Stone and Curtis finally took a trip with armed escorts on a British military helicopter around southern Iraq’s eight top ancient sites in June 2008, sites that were important enough to cover a full fifth of the country’s surface area. (Babylon is located elsewhere.) They found “little or no damage,” and they were “surprised,” it was reported in the Art Newspaper. I wrote a July 15, 2008 article for WSJ entitled “So Much For the Looted Sites,” in which I noted that the good news seemed to cast doubt on the archeological fraternity’s alarmist and incendiary former announcements, as well as “their method, their probity in sifting through the evidence.” I asked: “Do they have a political agenda?”

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