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The elusive truth about those missing Iraqi antiquities

Claims made nearly two months ago that some 170,000 priceless antiquities had been looted from the National Museum of Baghdad quickly became one of the iconic stories of the war — especially for anti-war commentators, for whom the news confirmed the Bush administration’s perfidy and incompetence. Yet within weeks, the missing-antiquity count was down as low as 17, leading conservative pundits such as Mark Steyn, writing in the London Telegraph, to sneer that the looting story was a " hoax. "

So what happened, exactly? It’s hard to say. What’s fascinating is that the story quickly became a proxy battle over the war in Iraq itself. Opponents have tended to believe the worst. Supporters, on the other hand, have tried to play down the looting from the moment it happened.

It all started on April 13, when John Burns reported in the New York Times that the National Museum — home to antiquities dating back some 7000 years — had been pillaged, " with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters " as Baghdad fell to American forces.

That number couldn’t be verified — but, at least at first, there was no reason to disbelieve the notion that something truly awful had happened. For instance, on April 23, Roger Atwood, writing in the Washington Post, reported, " Despite scattered rumors of artifacts turning up from Tehran to Paris, not a single one of the 90,000 or 120,000 or 170,000 plundered artifacts — no one knows for sure how many — is known to have been offered for sale anywhere in the world. "

But later came word that though some of the items had been grabbed by organized crime — an inside job, in other words — many more had been hidden for safekeeping before the war had even started.

On May 7, Lieutenant General William Wallace told reporters that " as few as 17 items were unaccounted for, " according to the Financial Times. Other media outlets, including the New York Times itself, reported US and other officials placing the number at 25, 29, and somewhere between 30 and 40.

" Much uncertainty remains, but the difference between 170,000 and 25, as Mark Twain might have put it, is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, " chortled the Weekly Standard. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, quoted an archeologist as saying, " I don’t see any big or significant damage from this looting. It was very small-scale. " A Wall Street Journal editorial, considering the case closed, blasted war critics, asserting, " It wasn’t long before the American liberation of Iraq was likened to the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. How typical, they sneered, for a Texas Republican to protect the oil fields (which will help feed Iraqis) while leaving the heritage of Western civilization naked. ", a nonpartisan media-watch site, took a look at the looting story on May 28. Spinsanity essentially adopted the findings of a London Telegraph investigation that many items were hidden before the war, but that " 33 items of major archeological significance " were still missing. Even with this low number, the Telegraph noted, the looting would still rank as " one of the biggest art thefts ever. "

But it turns out that the real number, in all likelihood, wasn’t anywhere near that low. On May 20 the Boston Globe’s Patrick Healy, reporting from Baghdad, wrote, " US investigators Friday estimated that thousands of antiquities were stolen from Iraq’s National Museum, fewer than the 170,000 initially reported. " And he quoted John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art who was on the scene, as saying that " it’s certainly bad enough. "

A UNESCO team arrived at similar findings. According to a piece by Barry James, in the May 24 International Herald Tribune, the UN agency has concluded that 2000 to 3000 objects " may be missing from the National Museum in Baghdad alone and that the entire contents of the National Library are lost beyond retrieval. " In addition, looting was said to have been rampant at the Baghdad Museum of Fine Arts. Mounir Bouchenaki, an expert who had studied the losses, was quoted as saying that lowball figures such as 25 missing pieces were " a distortion of reality. "

That, in turn, led New York Times essayist Frank Rich to write this past Sunday that " our government is now trying to cover up its culpability in the desecration of the Baghdad museum with smoke bombs of spin. " Indeed.

Which leads to two observations. First, there is no issue so objectively neutral that it can’t be thoroughly politicized by those inclined to do so. And second, the Bush White House and its supporters are better at it, mainly because they are more shameless than their opponents.

Issue Date: June 6 - 12, 2003
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