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On the trail of stolen Iraqi art

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If truth is war's first casualty, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad has the scars to prove it.

More than two years after the museum, home to the remains of mankind's most ancient cities, was pillaged by an army of looters, thousands of the stolen objects have yet to be recovered.

And it appears that civilian and military experts may never agree on exactly what happened at one of the world's most prized museums or on who should have protected these treasures.

Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine Reserve colonel and the U.S. military's lead investigator into the thefts, details the assault on the museum and its aftermath in his new book, Thieves of Baghdad (Bloomsbury, $29.95), written with thriller author William Patrick.

The book, released last week, is the civilian world's most detailed look at how the thefts unfolded and the behind-the-scenes efforts to recover the priceless antiquities.

The classics scholar-turned-attorney who has just returned to civilian life also describes the events in a report published in the current American Journal of Archaeology.

In the book, Bogdanos, 48, tells the more personal story of the path he took to Baghdad from his family's lower Manhattan apartment after the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, 2001. A prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's office -- nicknamed "Pit Bull" because of his tenacity -- he was best known for prosecuting Sean "Diddy" Combs on weapons charges stemming from a nightclub shooting. Combs was acquitted in March 2001.

All changed with 9/11. The four-year journey that followed took Bogdanos into active duty, through a stint tracking down Taliban records in Afghanistan and finally to his role as leader of the team investigating the museum thefts.

"We didn't have any expectations when we arrived at the museum. We just knew there was a problem to be fixed," he says.

Cradle of civilization

Iraq is one vast archaeological site, resting on the remains of some of the earliest human civilizations, says archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York. Empire-ruling cities such as Ur, Nineveh and Babylon lie beneath its soil.

The museum holds the fruits of a century of archaeological investigation into the uniquely preserved ancient cultures, captured in cuneiform tablets and seals, along with statuary, pottery and city walls, Stone says.

Exploring these civilizations only had scratched the surface when the war opened the door to thieves at the museum and at archaeological sites across the country, she says.

Following is Bogdanos' account of what happened, as set forth in his journal report and book:

U.S.-led forces entered Baghdad on April 5, 2003. At the museum, top officials, including research director Donny George Youkahanna, stayed until April 8, when Iraqi soldiers moved onto the grounds.

According to the dictates of the Hague Convention, it is a war crime to use a cultural site as a fighting position. There was evidence, however, that forces loyal to Saddam Hussein had long been preparing to use the museum, located across the street from an Iraqi Special Republican Guard compound and commanding a view of a Tigris bridge, as a stronghold. The 11-acre compound had extensive sandbagged pits, walls and bunkers

The fighters fled as Baghdad fell on April 11, leaving behind uniforms, weapons, Baath Party cards and a bloodstained tank-shell hole next to a sniper position on the second floor of the Children's Museum.

Then 300 to 400 looters and thieves moved in, until they were chased away by returning museum workers. The sight that greeted the staff was grim:

*In the public galleries, 40 prominent objects were stolen by organized thieves. Only 15 have been recovered, including the 5,000-year-old limestone Sacred Vase of Warka, among the world's oldest carved-stone ritual vessels.

*Crowds looted two storage rooms, which were open with no signs of forced entry. The staff estimates 3,138 jars, pottery and other pieces were stolen. Many were returned by repentant looters; 101 items are still missing.

*In the basement, evidence "strongly suggests" an inside job. Thieves broke through a hidden back entrance whose metal door showed no signs of forced entry. Incredibly, the theft of the museum's most valuable coins and cylinder seals, whose impressions served as a signature on ancient cuneiform tablets, was botched. The thieves lost a set of keys to the container lockers in the choking darkness of the torch-lit basement.

Still, 5,144 cylinder seals, more than one-third of the museum's collection, and 5,542 decorative pins, beads, pendants and necklaces were stolen. About 2,300 of these objects have been recovered, 1,395 of which were in customs seizures outside Iraq.

In all, more than 13,864 objects were stolen, and at least 5,359 were recovered, say investigators.

The detective work

Moving into the museum's library on April 21, Bogdanos' team got to work. Investigating the basement robbery required a military crime scene team's help, a "CSI: Baghdad" moment that led museum director Nawala al-Mutwalli to shriek with joy when they discovered the thieves had missed more than 100,000 gold and silver coins.

The investigators began an amnesty program for returned objects, recorded losses, interviewed witnesses and chatted up informants over tea. A friendship with Youkahanna and al-Mutwalli blossomed, and the team made spectacular recoveries, most notably securing the Treasure of Nimrud.

The treasure -- more than 1,000 pieces of golden jewelry from 800 B.C. uncovered in Assyrian royal tombs -- had been stashed in a vault in Baghdad's Central Bank in 1990 before the Gulf War. U.S. forces discovered that the bank was flooded below ground level.

Bogdanos gave the National Geographic Channel permission to pump out the vault, which took three weeks. The treasure was unharmed, although the remains of a would-be looter were a few feet away from a vault door, apparently killed by the ricochet of a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the door.

"I don't see this as the final word on the Iraq museum," says Columbia University archaeologist Zainab Bahrani, who believes a final analysis will find that more than 20,000 items were stolen.

"The report is the perspective of Col. Bogdanos, who is a representative of the U.S. military, and that's important to consider," Bahrani adds, because of the negative public reaction to the looting and, by extension, to the war itself.

That reaction was triggered by early accounts that 170,000 items had been looted, reported in newspapers worldwide, including USA TODAY. A former museum employee supplied the excessively high number that "adversely impacted our investigation on a daily basis," Bogdanos' report says.

"Frankly, those who have argued that U.S. forces should have done more to protect the museum present a compelling argument," he acknowledges.

"The more pointed question, however, is why no unit before the battle had been given the specific mission of protecting the museum," Bogdanos says in the journal.

Could take decades

The answer in part is that the military did not expect that Iraqis would see the museum as part of the Saddam regime, he says. "Thus, despite the prior warnings, planners simply did not believe that the museum ... would be looted."

In World War II, by contrast, the U.S. Military's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section worked with art historians to preserve cultural treasures.

Archaeologists agree it will take decades to recover all the stolen treasures, and some of them may never be seen again.

Experts led by Bahrani and colleagues claimed a victory this month when the Iraqi constitution was amended to include protections for antiquities.

Bogdanos plans to start a task force to explore blocking trade in stolen Iraqi antiquities when he returns to the Manhattan District Attorney's office in December. "The cash crop now in Iraq is antiquities," he says. "That stolen items are funding the insurgency is clear, nor should it surprise anyone."

Says Bahrani: "It's a global market. I don't think it's going to be easy." But she believes a task force is needed. "It is all of our history, not just Iraqis but everyone. So that is the tragedy."

Says Bogdanos: "I want to take my children to the Iraq Museum someday and not have them look at empty pedestals."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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