BAGHDAD — Iraq's present is chaotic, its future uncertain, and now its past has been plundered.
The looters came in waves, pillaging one of the finest collections of antiquities in the world as they stripped the Iraq Museum of more than 100,000 pieces of history, museum officials said. The police had abandoned their posts, leaving only four museum guards to protect the treasures of what is often called the cradle of civilization.
"There were hundreds of looters -- women, children, young people, old people," Raid Abdul Reda, 35, an archeologist at the museum, said Saturday. "These were mobs."
The mobs descended on the nation's cultural jewels. There was the gold and ivory harp of Ur, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham; artifacts from ancient Nineveh; and 5,000-year-old tablets bearing some of the earliest known writing. There was what is widely considered to be the first known calendar, a 10,000-year-old pebble with 12 scratches on it.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Ram in the Thicket -- A graphic in Sunday's Section A on museum pieces possibly lost during looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad incorrectly listed the Ram in the Thicket sculpture among the possible targets. There are two versions of the piece, neither of which was on display at the Baghdad museum. One is in Britain and the other in a traveling display in the United States.
There were stone, bone and flint instruments, some as much as 40,000 years old, found in Iraqi caves. There was a vast collection of Assyrian artifacts, including colossal sculptures from ancient royal palaces.
The cultural disaster began at Abdel Rahman Mugeer's door Wednesday.
"The robbers knocked on the door of the guards' house and said, 'We will kill you if you don't open the door,' " the toothless guard, who looked far older than his 57 years, said Saturday.
How the guards responded isn't clear. But even if they didn't let them inside, looters smashed through windows, pulled out metal bars, climbed through ventilation shafts, broke through cinder block barricades and pried open heavy metal doors. They got inside any way they could. There was some speculation that they got in with insider help.
Museum staff members said they begged U.S. troops to help. The Americans chased away the first group of looters, but when the troops left, the looters returned.
"The looting of anything from this museum is a major, major consequence," said McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago. "Every important small piece in the country is in that museum."
The museum staff has had experience with looters and the damage that war can inflict on antiquities. Widespread antiquity looting throughout the country began during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Since then, museum officials have been nearly helpless to staunch the hemorrhage of treasures from ancient Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria. The artifacts that have left Iraq sometimes were taken literally by the truckload.
Experts say the pieces often wind up with antiques dealers in Europe, in some cases accompanied by phony documents showing legal provenance -- or in the homes of wealthy collectors around the world. The loss of the nation's cultural treasures prompted the government to impose the death penalty on anyone selling such items abroad.
The museum staff made preparations for looters this time around. They took almost everything from the galleries and locked it in underground vaults. Museum workers bricked up entrances to the vaults before locking the foot-thick metal doors.
In the weeks before the war began, Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, chairman of the state board of antiquities, said there was real fear for artifacts throughout the country.
"This represents the heritage of the nation," he said at the time. "They are not only things to see and enjoy. We get strength from them to look toward the future. They represent the glory of Iraq."
But he also said that those working in the museum were soldiers who could protect the antiquities. That prediction was to prove horribly wrong.
Despite the precautions, the thieves got inside some of the vaults. In one of the few safes where security measures held, a frustrated looter dropped his pants and defecated. Abdul Reda refused to let a reporter inside to survey the damage, but from the windows and the holes smashed in the brick walls, it was obvious what had occurred.
Outside the director's office, metal boxes that had once held collections of valuable books were popped open, with the books strewn about. A statue in the corner had its hands smashed off. Showcases were all empty, the glass shattered.
A police station had been built behind the museum to provide on-site security for the priceless collection. But the police all fled along with the regime, and on Saturday their offices were still smoldering after being looted, trashed and torched.
Abdul Reda said he was too upset to remember everything that was taken, although he said the harp was gone and that about 80% of the collection had been stolen.
The specifics of the losses may not be known for some time, but Gibson described the museum's contents as "the single most important collection of Mesopotamian artifacts in the world." About 170,000 items were in the museum when the war started.
Koichiro Matsuura, head of the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, urged Americans to protect what was left of the collection and said the military should take steps to stop looting at other Iraqi archeological sites and museums.
The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced concern. Jordan urged the U.N. to take whatever steps were necessary to protect Iraq's historic sites, "a national treasure for the Iraqi people and an invaluable heritage to the Arab and Islamic worlds."
Times staff writers Scott Timberg and Marjorie Miller in Los Angeles contributed to this report.