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March 20, 2008
Among the many unintended and unforeseen consequences of the U.S. occupation of Iraq that began five years ago this week was the wholesale looting of Iraq's museums and archaeological sites. Iraq has been called the cradle of civilization. Starting with the Sumerian civilization, which more than 5,000 years ago produced what may be the world's first examples of writing and math, the area centered on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and known as Mesopotamia has been home to a succession of cultures -- Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian. Many believe southern Iraq was the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. But within weeks of the first American airstrike, the cradle of civilization had been robbed. Baghdad's National Museum of Iraq, among the globe's premier repositories of antiquities, was ransacked over the course of a week in April 2003. Statues were dragged down the steps, artifacts six millennia old were carried off in plastic bags. American soldiers were not dispatched to protect the museum until the thieves were long gone.
It was partly in response to media queries about the unimpeded looting of Iraq's cultural heritage that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered the infamous and cavalier rejoinder, "Democracy is messy." Five years after the sacking of Iraq, we decided to ask the experts how bad it really was, how many priceless antiquities have come back to their homeland, and what, if anything, has changed about the Bush administration's approach to protecting Iraq's history.