When I first went to the Iraq National Museum, I tried to get in through a gate that in its design had been inspired by Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria. The gate had a big hole in it, above the door, where it had been pierced by an American tank shell. The door was locked – it turned out to belong to the children’s museum – so I walked further down the street, as far as the entrance to a garden that served both museums. There, instead of a ticket-seller and someone to tear off a stub, I found a twenty-year-old private from Mississippi. To begin with, he was reluctant to let me in; I had no press pass. When I showed him my passport, he softened. ‘Seeing as you’re a Brit, and you helped us in the war, I’ll be nice.’ I thought of my French father, and said, ‘And what if I were French?’ He replied, ‘I’d tell you to get the fuck out of here.’ We laughed, and I went in.
Baghdad in May was a broken city, with un-citizens and vacant plinths where once there had been a government. Approaching along a highway from Basra, I passed mile-long convoys of lorries and transporters. These promises of aid and coercion gave me a guilty sense of security; with this, the Americans would surely be able to fill any vacuum, even one that Saddam had left behind. But when they got to the capital, the lorries and transporters – and their military protectors, bored men and women swinging their legs out of the sides of their Humvees – retreated behind the walls of appropriated palaces. They rarely ventured out, and then only for short periods. They seemed unwilling, or perhaps unable, to rule.
I was drawn to Baghdad by news of the looting that had taken place in the museum during the second week of April, as the Americans were taking the city. Shortly after, a distraught museum official, Nabhal Amin, reportedly put the figure of lost and destroyed items at 170,000. Many Western newspapers accused the Americans of indifference to the catastrophe. More recently, it had been determined that, although some irreplaceable pieces were lost, much less was missing than the media had originally suggested. The Americans had sent an assistant district attorney and marine reservist called Matthew Bogdanos to conduct an inquiry into events, and to recover as many of the lost items as he could.
On the road to Baghdad, I’d read a primer on Iraq’s tribes and history that Gertrude Bell wrote for British officers during the First World War. (It is exemplary for its succinctness and lightly worn scholarship, as well as for the certainty of its judgements.) Bell was an influential member of the colonial establishment that established a British mandate after the war, the exponent of a sly imperialism that was to place an imported Sunni king, Feisal of Mecca, on the newly invented throne of a newly invented state which had many Shi’a citizens, perhaps even a majority of them. No one, nowadays, is surprised that the scheme failed, and that it led to a series of dictatorships, of which Saddam’s was the most dreadful. But Bell seems to have believed that imperialism could be both master and servant of the nascent state. Having fallen out with the colonial administration, she founded the Iraq National Museum and drafted an antiquities law that obliged Leonard Woolley, the British excavator of Ur, to divide his findings between his two employers – the British Museum and the University Museum in Philadelphia – and also the new museum in Baghdad. Iraq’s distant past may have convinced her that its disparate peoples constituted a nation, with a unified cultural history. She certainly realized the importance of physical heritage to nationhood. Now, in 2003, it appeared that the Americans didn’t have this sensitivity. You sensed this criticism behind the sneers of their detractors; it was why they’d permitted the looting. And so I wanted to meet Colonel Bogdanos, and find out what kind of occupier he was.
I crossed the museum’s garden and went in through what looked like the main door, into a hall beneath a low cupola where there was a small crowd of people, most of them foreigners. I recognized two from the TV and newspaper analysis of events at the museum. One of them, a handsome man with white hair, was leaning heavily on a stick – that was Professor McGuire Gibson of Chicago University’s department of archaeology. Gibson was talking to a short shapeless man with a precarious smile – Donny George, the museum’s research director.
Over the preceding few weeks, George had come to personify Iraqi culture. (More so than Selma Nawali Mutawali, the museum director, who kept away from the media, or even Jabbar Ibrahim Khalil, the director-general of the antiquities board.) He spoke good English. He’d given interviews. He’d flown to London to brief officials from the British Museum on what had been lost, and how. On the question of numbers, he was more circumspect than Amin; there was no way of knowing how many items had been lost, it seemed, until a time-consuming audit had been carried out. But when it came to blame, he clearly conveyed the impression that the Americans should have done more. ‘Mr George,’ according to the London Guardian, ‘described how he went to the US Marines’ headquarters to beg commanders to send troops to the museum three days after the looting began.’ ‘They did nothing for three more days . . . I don’t know why,’ Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, was quoted as saying. ‘It’s very extraordinary . . . that with American troops in Baghdad, American troops almost at the gates of the museum, this was allowed to happen.’
I knew, or thought I knew, this much:
At 11 a.m. on Tuesday 8 April, Iraqi fighters entered the museum grounds, firing on US forces that were outside the grounds. Jabbar, George and the only remaining museum guard fled. A fourth employee, Muhsin Abbas, was reluctant to leave his house in the compound. During the ensuing fighting, one or more Iraqis fired rocket-propelled grenades from the roof of the children’s museum; the firing was stopped by the tank shell that holed the Assyrian gate. By Thursday, and perhaps before, fighting in the compound had subsided, to the extent that looters and vandals were able to enter through the back gate which had seen the heaviest fighting. On Thursday, Abbas entreated an American tank commander, positioned at an intersection a few hundred yards away, to move his tank to the museum gates; the commander refused, and the looting continued until Friday. On Saturday, George, who had taken refuge in his aunt’s house, heard radio reports of the looting. The following morning, having exacted a promise of immediate American protection for the museum, he and Jabbar returned to their posts. The help didn’t come. On Tuesday, George used a journalist’s satellite phone to contact colleagues at the British Museum. Tony Blair’s office was informed that the Iraq National Museum was still unprotected. The following day, Wednesday 16 April, the Americans arrived.
As I observed the foreigners at the museum, who turned out mostly to be archaeologists, two American soldiers crossed towards the group. There was a tall, genial-looking fellow with blonde hair; he followed a smaller, compact man wearing a T-shirt who rolled his shoulders as he walked. The short one was in charge; without glancing at anyone, he approached George and they talked for a minute. The American had a sharp nose and little pale eyes. When he’d finished, he walked back through the group of people again, looking straight ahead. I saw his name, in capitals on the seat of his combat fatigues: bogdanos.