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'They Burned the History of This Country'

Vandals have ravaged the national library and other cultural institutions. FBI will help seek stolen items.

April 18, 2003|Megan K. Stack and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — In the shadows of the charred reading room, Shakur Khozai scooped up a handful of ash, then shuddered and tossed it to the ground. As director of Iraq's national library, he has spent years caring for the nation's collection of rare books and archives.

Now, there is little left but soot and broken glass. Many of the 1 million volumes were lost Monday when an Iraqi mob gutted and set fire to the library, a five-story repository of irreplaceable ancient books, maps and handwritten archives.

"They burned the history of this country," Khozai said. "Now we are standing here beginning from zero. Our memory is destroyed."

As the residents of this rattled city venture slowly forth to take stock of the war's wastes, one thing has become tragically clear: Many of Iraq's most precious cultural institutions are now just memories. After surviving the U.S.-led bombing attacks, many of the nation's historical centerpieces have been lost to riots and rage.

There were the ancient Korans, Islamic holy texts that had previously withstood the sacking of the Mongols, only to be burned this week.

The national museum, with its colossal sculptures and the first known calendar: pillaged.

Universities: sacked.

Government archives: missing or burned.

Many Iraqis blame the U.S. for failing to protect their national treasures from the mobs that stormed through Baghdad's cultural institutions after the city fell and the American military failed to immediately halt the looting.

"This is the freedom they promised us?" asked Acaeel Husan, a 37-year-old volunteer at the library.

Some blamed the looting on pent-up rage after decades of dictatorial rule by Saddam Hussein.

"They do these things without thinking, because they hated the government," said Ehmad Aziz, 49, a watchman at the national theater, which was looted. "They had guns. What could I do?"

Who actually committed the looting has remained a matter of conjecture in the days since U.S. troops stormed Baghdad.

In Paris, a group of art experts and cultural historians was brought together this week to assess the damage to Iraq's heritage. One of them, McGuire Gibson, an American, said the pillaging of the national museum had the earmarks of an inside job in which the looters may have had keys to the vaults where centuries-old treasures were stored.

"It looks as if part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action," he told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, by late Thursday, three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee had resigned to protest the U.S. failure to protect the museum from looting

"The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction," said Martin E. Sullivan, the committee's chairman, in his resignation letter.

These are twilight times in Baghdad, uncertain days somewhere between war and peace. Even as gunfire continues to crackle in the streets and fires cloud the horizon, many people are trickling out of their homes, and shops are reopening. Slowly, thoughts are turning to the task of rebuilding the nation from the ashes of the Hussein regime.

But intellectuals and artists fear that the nation has been robbed of its soul. "How can we build a new Iraq after this?" asked librarian Saib Suhaib. "We can buy computers. We can make new buildings. But we can't buy a museum, or these books, or history."

On the ground floor of the national library in downtown Baghdad, piles of embers still sent an eerie heat into the darkness Thursday. The remnants of a staircase rose precariously from the old stone floors. Library workers trailed mournfully among the piles of soot, their faces smudged.

Some point out that the Iraqi Oil Ministry building was spared, while museums and hospitals were sacked. Baghdad University has been turned into a U.S. military compound; Iraqi civilians aren't allowed to enter.

"We need freedom, yes, but not this freedom," said Abdul Rahmad Hamed, who teaches history at the university. "This is destruction, and I feel awful for my people."

Until the war, there stood on the banks of the Tigris River a cool stone haven for artists and intellectuals. Amal Khudeiri, 64, spent a decade turning the old house into a shaded complex of artists' studios and salons. Khudeiri's aim was to showcase and revive her nation's handicrafts.

She hosted art exhibits and poetry nights. Hibiscus and violets bloomed in the garden. Out back, beyond the ornate doors, the river stretched smooth and long.

This week, dust streams in the shattered windows. The floors are a mess of oil paint tubes, broken Beethoven records and shredded books. What looters couldn't cart off, they smashed.

When Khudeiri saw the damage, she fell into a tearful rage. "What have I done?" she cried. "I am not the government. I am not the party."

The national theater is also a jumble of broken wood, smashed glass and sandbags. Upturned tables cover the missing lobby windows to prevent more damage. Overhead, the marquee still splashes an advertisement for a play called "The Thieves."

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