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IRAQ: The burning of libraries

The looting of Iraqi museums has aroused consternation in the West. An emergency meeting is to be held in Paris. The US military had received many warnings and requests that it protect the museums, but the military counter that they made no promises. Some of the looted objects many be recovered, but the books and manuscripts burned are irretrievably lost. Here is an extract from an article on the subject. See Robert Fisk: "Library books, letters and priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad".

"So yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then the arsonists. It was the final chapter in the sacking of Baghdad. The National Library and Archives a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment were set ablaze. I saw the looters. One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law from a boy of no more than 10. Amid the ashes of Iraqi history, I found a file blowing in the wind outside: pages of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.

And the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed? When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning there were flames 100 feet high 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".

Ronald Hilton - 4/17/03