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The Bush Administration has recently earned itself a unique place in the annals of human history. In ousting the government of Iraq, Coalition forces led by the United States created the largest single loss of human history ever to occur. Historical records and artifacts covering a span of 10,000 years were lost in less than a week. Despite similar looting after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and current warnings about looting from scholars and learned societies, the Coalition did nothing to prevent these losses.

The Iraqi National Museum of Antiquities possessed over 100,000 cuneiform tablets, including the oldest library collection ever found on its original shelves, the Sippar Library (approximately 800 tablets). Only a few dozen of the tablets from that collection have been studied and published, but it is known that the collection contained parallels to the story of Noah and the prologue to the Code of Hammurabi. Ironically, the effort to impose an American vision of law and order on Iraq has resulted in the loss of the earliest records of written laws.

Coalition indifference also destroyed unstudied tablets and artifacts excavated to avoid flooding from hydroelectric projects, and stored at the Iraqi National Museum. Safe from the flood of waters, these treasures vanished in a torrent of Coalition-sanctioned looting. Ottoman historical documents were likewise lost with the looting and burning of the National Library and Archives, and material of interest to members of the Islamic faith and Islamic scholars was lost when the Library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was looted and put to the torch.

The indifference of the Coalition is best illustrated by the following report by Robert Fisk, which first appeared on April 15, 2003, in The Independent:

When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire". I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

But not every asset in Iraq went unguarded in this campaign. Despite the continued snipe hunt for weapons of mass destruction, the Coalition managed to protect oil fields and infrastructure that would ultimately benefit the occupying powers. Coalition commanders failed to realize that trading in a futures market is not an accurate measure of importance.

Cataloging the losses and making whatever recoveries possible will consume years of effort by the entire scholarly community. That effort should pale beside the effort to prevent future such offenses against the cultural legacy of countries and peoples. The "success" of the Coalition in Iraq will no doubt lead to further adventures that will put other cultural legacies at risk.

The Society of Biblical Literature should partner with other institutions to begin emergency digitization and replication of cultural legacies in countries around the world. Such partnerships are the only way to combat the future loss of cultural legacies to United States or other national government indifference. Such losses will occur; the only question is whether we will take effective steps to prevent such devastating and utter loss.

Patrick Durusau is Director of Research and Development at the Society of Biblical Literature. Email: Patrick Durusau

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Citation: Patrick Durusau, " Iraqi Freedom Scorecard," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


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