Iraq's most prominent archaeologist has resigned and fled the country, saying the dire security situation, an acute shortage of funds, and the interference of supporters of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had made his position intolerable.
Donny George, who was president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, achieved international recognition for his efforts to track down and recover the priceless antiquities looted from Iraq's National Museum in the mayhem that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
But this week he revealed that he had resigned and was in hiding with his family in the Syrian capital Damascus. In an interview with the Art Newspaper, Dr George said Baghdad was now so dangerous that the National Museum, which houses a trove of Sumerian and Babylonian artefacts, had been sealed off by concrete walls to protect it from insurgent attacks and further looting.
The museum, established by the British in the 1920s, is situated near to Baghdad's notorious Haifa Street, an area that sees regular outbreaks of violence. It lost some 15,000 pieces during the looting in 2003, but about half of them have been recovered. Museum officials say the collections have been walled off four times since the invasion, most recently after a mass kidnapping near the museum building.
"It was the only way to guarantee the museum's safety," said Dr George, who said he had taken the decision despite opposition from the culture ministry. An indefinite delay in the reopening of the museum had been ordered by the ministry.
Dr George painted a bleak picture for the future of Iraq's ancient treasures. He said that excavation and conservation projects in Iraq had stalled and that all the foreign archaeologists had left the country.
He said the 1,400 members of the special antiquities protection force would be going without pay, meaning there would be little to stop further looting at the country's 11,000 archaeological sites. "From September there is no more money for their salaries," said Dr George. "The coalition has to do something about this."
After the looting in 2003 US officials were criticised by archaeologists for not securing the museum. The US military has since been accused of damaging a number of ancient sites. Dr George said the work of the antiquities department had also been affected by the sectarian divide in Iraq, with key posts in the culture ministry being filled with loyalists of the militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, including Liwa Sumaysim, the minister of state for antiquities.
"The board has come under the increasing influence of al-Sadr," claimed Dr George. "I can no longer work with these people who have come in with the new ministry. They have no knowledge of archaeology, no knowledge of antiquities."
Dr George, a Christian, said he had battled to prevent an Islamist and anti-western agenda from taking over at the antiquities department. "A lot of people have been sent to our institutions. They are only interested in Islamic sites and not Iraq's earlier heritage. The Sadrists did not like me having any contact with anyone from outside," he said.
Since the war Dr George has travelled the world, highlighting the plight of his country's ancient heritage. He had forged close ties with foreign institutions, including the British Museum. Hannah Bolton, a spokeswoman for the museum, said the museum promised to continue cooperating with the Iraqi authorities, and also hoped to continue its close relationship with Dr George.
The culture ministry could not be reached for comment yesterday but a senior Sadrist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Dr George had served throughout the former regime and "had done nothing to stop Saddam carving his name into the walls of every brick" during the reconstruction of the ancient palace at Babylon.
Lost and found
Warka vaseThe 5,000-year-old limestone vase from the Sumerian city of Uruk is carved with scenes of priests and animals. It is the oldest known carved ritual vase. It was returned, in pieces, in June 2003.
Statue of EntemenaThe headless statue of the Mesopotamian king is made of black diorite and dates from 2430 BC. It was smuggled out to Syria and recovered in May, when Hicham Aboutaam, a Lebanese antiquities dealer, was offered it for sale in New York.
Sumerian free-standing [statue]The stone statue of a male Sumerian priest bears an inscription about the goddess Nin-shu-pur and dates from 2500 BC, one of the earliest known examples.
Mask of WarkaDating from 3100 BC, it is the oldest known sculpture of a natural human face and is nicknamed the Sumerian Mona Lisa. It was found buried at a farmhouse in al-Rabbia in 2003.
Bassetki statueThe copper sculpture, depicting the legs and lower torso of a seated male figure, bears an Akkadian inscription and is 4,300 years old. It was found in a cesspool in 2003.
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