The Nahrein Network


Reclaiming Iraq’s history

20 February 2023

Arab Digest

BY Bill Law

Summary: Iraq has a deep and enormously rich history that was heavily damaged by the 2003 war and occupation, the insurgency that followed and by the brutal predations of ISIS; a new minister of culture is working to try and set things right but he faces daunting challenges.

At a Chatham House session on 16 February, Iraq’s recently installed minister of culture Dr Ahmed Fakak al-Badrani was asked how he was managing to deal with the culture of corruption that has flourished under the muhasasa system which sees government departments allocated along ethno-sectarian lines. Dr al-Badrani a Mosul academic with a distinguished cv (dean of 4 colleges and president of 2 universities) replied by speaking about a “triangular” effect: muhasasa caused corruption and the corruption created terrorism.

He spoke, too, about the terrible predations that the 2003 war, the violent insurgency that followed and the subsequent invasion by ISIS had inflicted on Iraq’s rich store of antiquities and ancient sites.  The country had paid “a high price,” from the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003 to the destruction carried out by ISIS in Nineveh and Mosul. “Daesh,” the minister said “had tried to wipe out history.”

He said the strategy moving forward was to “get the full picture” and reshuffle personnel on the basis of merit and productivity. The ministry’s 3 pillars are tourism, heritage and culture. Obstacles will be eliminated, in order to “put the train on the right track.”

But what about corruption and powerful groups pressuring him to meet their demands, how was the minister handling that? His reply was revealing both about the current culture of cronyism and his efforts as an individual minister to move beyond it. Where previous ministers may have been weak and succumbed he was in a position of strength thanks to the fact that he was “a dissident who came from a wealthy family.” He is well known and respected in Iraq “as an academic, a poet, a novelist and an historian.” He had never sold a post, nor had the need to do so. His wealth and academic reputation “provides a barrier between myself and previous ministers.”

The task he faces is a huge one. In addition to work that has been ongoing over several years to return looted artefacts to Iraq and to restore the National Museum, the minister has an ambitious plan to build a series of regional museums  in the country’s 18 provinces that are intended to celebrate Iraq’s diversity.

He wants to “clear out corruption” and exert control over excavations to prevent further looting. Law 55, the 2002 antiquities legislation needs to be amended. There are 6 world heritage sights to rehabilitate and “new blood” to recruit into heritage and antiquities pursuits. Mosul and Ninevah need to be restored and the effort on returning looted artefacts redoubled.

The minister described the destruction of the Library of Islamic Endowment in Baghdad in 2003 and of the University of Mosul library - the largest in the country - by ISIS in 2017 as a catastrophe. Many original ancient manuscripts were lost, although some survive in digital copies. Other manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts are in the US, the UK “and other countries in the East and the West.” “We are,” he said “quite confident our friends will help to bring these manuscripts back to their home.”

On the artefacts front, a staggering 15000 were looted from the National Museum in 2003 with US occupation forces doing little or nothing to intervene. Other sites of enormous antiquity were vandalised, among them Babylon’s Ishtar Gate south of Baghdad, built in 575 BC. A 2018 Atlantic article describes what happened to the site when US troops seized it:

About 300,000 square meters were covered with gravel, contaminating the site. Several dragon figures on the Ishtar Gate were damaged. Trenches were cut into ancient deposits, dispersing brick fragments bearing cuneiform inscriptions. One area was flattened to make a landing pad for helicopters; another made way for a parking lot; yet another, portable toilets.

Belatedly realising the damage the war and occupation had done, the US has in recent years led an effort to return looted antiquities. In 2017 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) brought a successful prosecution against a Washington museum, Museum of the Bible, established by a family of wealthy evangelicals. It came to be known as the Hobby Lobby scandal, so-named after the chain of arts and crafts stores the family owns in America.

5500 artefacts were returned and a fine of US$3 million paid with the American authoritiescongratulating themselves for a job well done. Thousands more were turned over by the Museum of the Bible in 2021.

The UK, too has done some restorative work, though Minister al-Badrani did make reference to 6000 antiquities looted from Iraq at the end of the First World War while it was under the British Mandate, antiquities that he wants to see returned: “They were taken from Iraq 100 years ago for research purposes.” Among those excavating, the minister noted, were “Miss Bell and the husband of Agatha Christie” (Gertrude Bell and Christie’s first husband Archibald Christie.)

While those negotiations are ongoing and clearly important to the minister’s vision to link Iraq’s rich cultural heritage to the tourism sector, he faces a daunting task. In order to build the museums in which he hopes to place restored antiquities he will inevitably come up against not just muhasasa but Hashd al-Sha’bi, the PMU militias deeply involved in smuggling and in the construction sector. (For more on the PMU see Renad Mansour’s February 2021 Chatham House paper Networks of power)

The Chatham House researcher Hisham al-Hashemi who was assassinated in Baghdad in July 2020 had uncovered evidence of  the PMU controlling tenders, gravel and sand quarries as well as using border posts they command to both smuggle goods out and extort bribes for incoming goods.  The minister wouldn’t be drawn on the extent to which the PMU may be involved in smuggling looted artefacts out of Iraq.

The other challenge Dr al-Badrani faces is that though he may secure the return of many artefacts as Western museum guilt takes hold and though he may build the museums will the tourists come? The issue now, as it has been for the past twenty years, is security. An attendee when asked, after the meeting, about visiting Iraq as a tourist to experience its undoubtedly rich and gloriously long heritage said  “I would go to KRI (Kurdish region of Iraq) but the rest of Iraq no. It is too dangerous.”