The rattle of machine-gun fire rang out near the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad yesterday just as the US authorities were putting on display the fabulous golden treasure of Nimrud to demonstrate that they cared for Iraqi culture and that life in the capital was returning to normal.
As propaganda stunts go it was not very successful. American archaeologists immediately accused the authorities of putting at risk the fragile 3,000-year-old golden ornaments by rushing them from the vaults of the Central Bank and back again to show that the looting of the museum had not been as bad as first claimed.
"I think it is an act of propaganda," said Professor Elizabeth Stone, a specialist in Iraqi archaeology at New York State University. "It is to show that nothing really happened to the museum. No curator in the world would allow this sort of exhibition unless ordered to do so."
Paul Zimansky, professor of archaeology at Boston University, said dismissively: "This is a kind of stunt."
The aim of the exhibition was evidently to redress the damage done to the reputation of the US by its failure to protect the Iraqi Museum, one of the five greatest in the world, from looters after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April.
Only two rooms of the ransacked museum were on view yesterday. One contained gigantic Assyrian statues which even the looters had failed to destroy. Another room was used to display the golden necklaces, bracelets, bowls and a magnificent golden head-dress, the grave goods of Assyrian queens and princes, discovered at Nimrud in northern Iraq by the Iraqi archaeologist Muzahim Mahmoud Hussein between 1988 and 1992. Long feared lost, they were found intact in a case covered in sewage in a basement of the Central Bank. The rest of the museum was out of bounds.
"Now listen up folks," shouted a US officer to the assembled media at the gate of the museum. "Anyone caught wandering about the rest of the museum will be arrested, taken to the airport and shipped out."
At this point there was a burst of machine-gun fire lasting for several minutes. At first this was thought to be looters fighting over their booty at the nearby al-Alawi intersection, as has happened before. It turned out to be a wedding party firing their guns into the air who had been mistaken for attackers by US soldiers on the roof of the museum, who also opened fire.
The soldiers were understandably nervous. A few hours later a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into a US vehicle in Haifa Street in central Baghdad, injuring one soldier. In a worrying development for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as the occupation administration is known, a crowd of Iraqis spontaneously jumped up and down in delight on the smouldering remains of the burnt-out vehicle.
Inside the museum, Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat who is in charge of Iraqi culture at the CPA, told The Independent that the purpose of the exhibition was "to show that things are getting back to normal".
The extent of the losses of the museum has become a matter of controversy, with those supporting the war claiming they were not as serious as first reported. Professor Stone said most of the moveable objects were hurriedly taken to store rooms for safety and it was here that the worst looting occurred. It had only just been discovered that 4,800 ancient seals had been stolen. No inventory has been taken of destroyed items because smashed fragments of antiquities lying on the floor of one store room will have be carefully removed to see what can be pieced together again.
Professor Stone added that far from normality returning, the looting of archaeological sites in the Iraqi countryside was now much worse than it was six weeks ago, with thieves using bulldozers to excavate anything of value and breaking into tombs.
The US army was taking no chances that the Nimrud treasure would be stolen. It had been packed into a case the previous day and taken to the museum with American soldiers sleeping on the floor to guard it. It was then put on display for two hours so that Paul Bremer, the chief US official in Iraq, and the media could view it. The treasure was immediately returned to the bank.Reuse content