Hard News by Russell Brown

At least they saved the oil wells

The transcript of Donald Rumsfeld's April 11 press conference has already been removed from the Washington File, the US federal government's public archive. "The Washington File article you're looking for is no longer on the system," it says when you visit.

It's easy to understand why. His jocular, dismissive comments, including the observation that "freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," were both fateful and ludicrous. (The New York Times has a partial transcript and some video.)

In our free democracies, none of us is free to "make mistakes and commit crimes" like looting shops, hospitals and universities. We enjoy the rule of law, and, if we don't enjoy it, there are officers with a duty to enforce it.

But what has happened this past week in the museums of Baghdad and Mosul is much worse than any mere smash-and-grab raid for office chairs or luxury light fittings. The collections in those museums are not just the soul of the Iraqis, they are a human heritage: among them, the first written texts from the first cities. I've looked at the handful of very old cuneiform tablets in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and, even where they are just inventory notes or accounts, there is something powerful about them. They are the first time we wrote anything down.

As Robert Fisk put it:

They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them down on to the concrete.

Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history – only to be destroyed when America came to "liberate" the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation's thousands of years of civilisation.

In all cases, coalition troops stood back and let it happen - they had no orders to do otherwise. Could this have been avoided?

Absolutely. Antiquities experts quite clearly warned of the danger of this happening as the US war rhetoric was stepped up last year. Ironically, less than a year ago, Saddam's government embarked on a major heritage project - the recreation of the famous seventh century BC library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal - with the British Museum. Unesco was set to help.

The situation at Mosul might not be quite so bad. After talks with the British Museum, the management of the museum there moved some of the most precious antiquities. There has been systematic theft and, presumably, supply to the West in the northern Iraqi territories protected by US and British forces since the 1991 war.

But the museum directors were mostly fearing US bombs, not looting at the hands of their own. So what should we make of the fact that some Iraqis appear to have been willing to cut our their own cultural hearts? To an extent, Rumsfeld is right - the urge to strike back and to take back from the regime must have been powerful in the first hours of freedom. But the gutting of public institutions does not suggest any great faith in prospects for a collective state: ideally, they should have believed this was all theirs anyway, but they didn't. They just grabbed what they could get.

In the end, this is the responsibility of the Americans. They chose this path, they made light of the risks. They were specifically asked to ensure the security of the two main museum sites. And they didn't. It's tempting to conclude that they just didn't care. But hey, at least they saved the oil wells.