Japan announces effort to save Iraq’s antiquities

Japan has announced it will wage a campaign to save Iraq’s antiquities, many of which were stolen by looters after U.S. and British forces toppled the government of President Saddam Hussein.

The “Save Iraqi Cultural Property” campaign was announced at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday.

Ikuo Hirayama, a prominent Japanese painter and UNESCO goodwill ambassador, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and education minister Atsuko Toyama called on the public and private sectors to cooperate in international efforts to locate, preserve and restore Iraq’s looted antiquities.

The two ministers, with the cooperation of Hirayama, who is also president of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, have already set up a liaison council for the campaign and started asking various organizations to participate.

So far 12 groups, including the National Museum and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, have said they will take part in the campaign.

Other organizations planning to participate include the Japanese branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the Institute for Cultural Studies of Ancient Iraq at Kokushikan University in Tokyo, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and the Japan Foundation.

During the campaign, the Japanese government will call for donations from the public and private groups to set up a fund for preserving and restoring Iraq’s antiquities.

Hirayama said the fund could be used, for example, to purchase vehicles or hire Iraqis for patrolling heritage sites to prevent looting.

Hirayama is also active in the preservation of Afghan antiquities, many of which were severely damaged or destroyed by years of internal conflict there.

“Like the people in Afghanistan, now the Iraqi people are impoverished in the wake of war,” he said.

“It is important to give local residents a job and means to live. I hope that in this way, we can protect the people by protecting their heritage.”

Hirayama also said Japan’s museums, known for their skill in preserving and restoring antiquities, can accept personnel from Iraqi museums for training.

Toyama and Kawaguchi said their ministries plan to dispatch personnel on a fact-finding mission to Iraq and to cooperate in creating a database for the stolen artifacts with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They will also host exhibitions in Japan to increase public awareness of the issue.

Iraq, home to the remains of the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Babylon, Ur and Nineveh, has a rich archaeological heritage.

But looters stormed the National Museum and stole numerous antiques and national treasures after the Hussein regime was thrown out.

As part of postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Japan has already provided $1 million to a special fund set up by UNESCO to protect and preserve Iraqi cultural assets.