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As war again comes to Iraq, the international community is rightly concerned about the human toll, civilian as well as military, long-term as well as immediate. Governments and humanitarian organizations already have relief plans in place to help the expected flood of refugees. Others worry about the fate of the country’s oil fields and the impact of high-intensity bombing on the environment. But there is another aspect of the invasion and its aftermath that is, or should be, of concern: the threat posed to Iraq’s incomparable antiquities.

This is not a matter of a few fragile objets d’art or dusty museum pieces. Iraq, which is more or less equivalent to the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was ancient Mesopotamia, is viewed by scholars as the cradle of Western civilization: site of the biblical Garden of Eden and seedbed of the cultures that gave the Western world its first cities, writing systems, libraries, legal codes, coins, calendars, double-entry bookkeeping and farming techniques, among many other things.

Modern Iraq is home to more than 10,000 archaeological sites, from the ruins of entire cities, such as Nineveh, Babylon and Ur, to the remains of fabled palaces, including the one from which Sennacherib the Assyrian sent his army down “like the wolf on the fold” against Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Most have not yet been excavated, although that hasn’t stopped looters.

Iraq is a historical treasure house in jeopardy. And while the U.S. Defense Department reportedly has a list of some 150 sites that it will take pains to spare — just as American bomber pilots had orders to spare Kyoto, Nara and the Imperial Palace during World War II — that is not much of a guarantee, given these two facts: The listed sites are but a tiny fraction of the total; and many of the sites in question are no more than mounds in the desert, at risk of destruction by Iraqi troops as well as allied ones. In most cases, damage stems as much from ignorance as malice.

Iraqi antiquities were certainly damaged in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, most famously when the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur was strafed by U.S. jets and then looted by souvenir-hunting U.S. soldiers. But both foreign and Iraqi scholars agree that the real losses occurred after the war, not during it. A little context is relevant here. There has been an eager market for Mesopotamian artifacts ever since Europe’s colonial powers began indulging their plundering habit back in the 19th century; since then, that market has grown to include wealthy buyers in America and Asia, especially Japan.

For a time before the first Persian Gulf War, foreign acquisitions were largely held in check by Iraq’s rigid control over cultural exports. Under President Saddam Hussein, the country had a sterling record when it came to protecting its cultural heritage — better than its protection of human rights, in fact, considering that antiques traffickers in Iraq faced a possible death penalty.

The real problems began with the postwar imposition of U.N. sanctions. According to experts, the effect of the sanctions in this sphere was twofold: Resources were diverted from “nonessential” areas such as heritage preservation, and financially squeezed Iraqis had more incentive to risk anti-trafficking penalties, whether they were rich people selling off family heirlooms or poor ones tempted to plunder.

Professor John Malcolm Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art says that looting at the Sennacherib palace in Nineveh during the tumultuous ’90s already amounts to “a world heritage disaster of the first magnitude.” Unfortunately, the other side of the sanctions coin was the prohibition of any form of outside cultural assistance to Iraq. The U.N. Security Council even refused permission for UNESCO teams to assess damage done to Iraqi cultural sites during and after the Persian Gulf War, let alone consider compensation.

In a way, this sad history puts “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in a more hopeful light. Provided that direct wartime damage can be kept to a minimum, a victorious occupation regime will have the opportunity — indeed, the obligation — to restore heritage protection in Iraq to its previous status as among the best in the world. This will require three things: the end of U.N. sanctions and the return of international support for the Iraq Antiquities Department, which will presumably be immediate, and the restoration of social and economic stability, which will take much longer. The overall effect will be to remove the conditions that allowed illegal excavation and export of cultural property to flourish.

The United States, some would say arguably, has taken personal responsibility for Iraq. One can only hope that it won’t neglect this important aspect of its self-imposed task.

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