- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

BAGHDAD

Iraq’s restored National Museum reopened Monday with a red-carpet gala in the heart of Baghdad nearly six years after looters carried away priceless antiquities as American troops largely stood by in the chaos of the city’s fall to U.S. forces.

The ransacking of the museum became a symbol for critics of Washington’s post-invasion strategy and its inability to maintain order as Saddam Hussein’s police and military unraveled.

But Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, chose to look ahead. He called the reopening another milestone in Baghdad’s slow return to stability after years of bloodshed.

“It was a dark age that Iraq passed through,” the prime minister said at a dedication ceremony after walking down a red carpet into the museum. “This spot of civilization has had its share of destruction.”

The museum - which holds artifacts from the Stone Age through the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods - will open to the public starting Tuesday but only for organized tours at first, officials said.

“We have ended the black wind [of violence] and have started the reconstruction process,” Mr. al-Maliki told hundreds of officials and guardians of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage as Iraqi soldiers with red berets stood guard.

Once the home of one of the world’s leading collections of artifacts, the museum fell victim to bands of armed thieves who rampaged through the capital after the Americans captured Baghdad in April 2003.

When asked at the time why U.S. troops did not actively seek to stop the lawlessness, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said: “Stuff happens … and it’s untidy and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials have said about 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum and that about 8,500 were later recovered.

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a U.S. investigator who led the probe into the looting, said last year that trafficking of stolen Iraqi antiquities was helping finance al Qaeda in Iraq as well as Shi’ite militias.

A number of countries in the region, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt, have returned stolen objects to Baghdad, a city which served as the scientific and literary hub of the Arab world in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Iraqi officials closed the museum several weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, fearing an attack on the city might embolden criminals to steal the artifacts. Some important artifacts were stored at secret locations away from the museum and were spared the looting.

The most valuable and unique pieces belonging to the collection, including two small winged bulls and statues from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods more than 2,000 years ago, were on display Monday. Others remained locked away.

Abdul-Zahra al-Talqani, the media director of Iraq’s office of tourism and archaeology affairs, said it was more a matter of space than security because only eight of 23 halls have been renovated.

More artifacts will be put on display as other halls are opened, he said, adding that museum officials were waiting for more government funding.

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