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26 November 2003
Troops trained to guard Iraq sites

Hopes have been raised that the US-led coalition in Iraq is about to take widespread action against the looting of archaeological sites. The coalition is training an Iraqi commander to lead a policing contingent that will guard more than 500 locations of historical importance. By the end of November 2003 some two dozen supervisors will also begin instruction, and at the end of the year they will recruit and train more than 1,200 men for archaeological security duties. The coalition hopes for at least $1 million in US State Department aid to fund the exercise, including the supply of 40 off-road vehicles, communications systems and, possibly, observation towers.
     The looting of Iraq’s National Museum after the fall of Baghdad has generated media coverage worldwide. The plundering of archaeological sites has received far less attention. Since the end of the war there have been only chequered attempts to prevent the pillaging of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Looters in remote outposts are still active. Many of the gangs operate only at night and are linked to international smuggling organisations. “The looters are well organised and well-armed and it will take time to stop them,” said Mario Osio, an Italian adviser to the coalition on cultural matters. Hired guards are often overwhelmed by the numbers and firepower of the thieves. The area under threat is too vast to allow comprehensive supervision without a substantial increase in resources.
     Nippur, the first site of ancient Mesopotamia to be excavated (1889) showed signs of looting in May of this year. In June more than 100 holes were found by a United Nations team. Efforts by American archaeologists to secure the site with Iraqi guards failed when the site was over-run by looters. But over the last month local police and Spanish forces have kept looters at bay. “We don’t know what has been taken because it was all under ground and there was never an inventory,” said Thabit Gassad Al-Fatlawi, in charge of the government inspections of sites in southern Iraq. When security improves US teams hope to survey the sites and estimate the losses. “Just the fact that anything was taken at all is outrageous,” said McGuire Gibson, an archaeology professor at the University of Chicago. “Something should have been done sooner. You wouldn’t let Rome, Mecca or Jerusalem be looted like this.”

Sources: Chicago Tribune, The State.com (19 November 2003)

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