Systematic plunder?

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The moment I arrived in Iraq my mind raced with questions. And as I traveled about the country, from one city to the next, my need for answers only increased.

Even the manner in which our airplane landed at what was once Saddam International Airport in Baghdad was telling with respect to the security situation. Instead of gradually decreasing the plane’s altitude while approaching the airport, as is common, the pilot kept the aircraft at a high altitude until we were right above the airport. He then circled downwards and landed abruptly. I learned afterwards that the area around the airport is still unsafe and that, as a security precaution, pilots are told to avoid low flying, in order to avoid possible attacks by anti-aircraft weaponry.

The areas alongside the road from the airport to the centre of Baghdad were lined by parched or felled palm trees. The driver of my car said, “Thousands of bodies, perhaps as many as 3,000, were strewn about the road for days. When the battles were over, US forces took the bodies away. No one knows where the bodies went or where they are buried. This is true for most of the Iraqi fatalities, civilian and military. No one knows the fate of those who died. Perhaps they were buried in mass graves.”

The question that haunted me, after touring many Iraqi cities, was: who caused the extensive havoc and destruction to Iraq’s institutions, infrastructure, and scientific organisations? The damage was simply too extensive to be haphazard. It is hard to fathom how so much destruction could be wrought to universities, scientific institutes, and hospitals in the absence of systematic planning. Only one province was spared damage. In Al-Emarah, south of Baghdad, tribal and clan chieftains told me that they fought off attempts at looting and destruction by forming roving bands to protect public and private property.

In the rest of cities, things were different. It seemed to me that many hands — domestic and foreign — were involved in the destruction of Iraq. In Basra, I had my answer. A friend who held a senior position in the former regime provided me with a “top secret” document, issued by the Iraqi General Intelligence, a service known to be under the direct command of the Iraqi presidency.

The document is stamped with the seal of the Iraqi republic and dated 23 January 2003. It urged members of Iraqi intelligence apparatuses and the Ba’ath Party to destroy all government buildings and infrastructure, loot and burn all government offices, and then take refuge with ulema (religious scholars) in the city of Al- Najaf before seeking to join and gain membership of the political and national parties and groups that may surface. The document carried the serial number 549 and was entitled “Secret Emergency Plan”.

Whether or not the document is authentic, there was more behind the destruction of Iraq than a single memo. When I visited Al-Rashad Mental Health Hospital, doctors told me of the tragic fate that befell their institution. The hospital was treating 1,020 patients diagnosed with serious mental illnesses at the time Baghdad fell. Soon afterwards, US forces entered the premises, their tanks having broken through the western wall of the hospital at three different points. The hospital is adjacent to the predominantly Shi’ite Saddam City, now Al-Sadr City. US forces allowed angry mobs to loot and burn hospital facilities including laboratories its pharmacies. The patients were released; some are still roaming the nearby squares, while others have taken shelter in the cemeteries.

The director of that hospital said that among the patients were 117 dangerous individuals who have been charged with serious crimes, including murder. In the women’s wards, some of the patients were raped. Others were thrown out and became homeless. One of the doctors suggested that those who attacked the hospital were definitely hired hands, because it appeared that their main purpose was not theft, but destruction and sabotage.

At the entrance to Basra stand the charred remains of the Iraqi Oil Company, once the tallest building in town. A friend told me that score- settling between Iraqis and Kuwaitis was responsible for the destruction of that particular building. Other city residents gave a similar account. Shortly following the arrival of British forces in Basra, some of the locals stole furniture from the building. Later, a large number of Kuwaitis allegedly descended on to the city, having crossed the borders between the two countries and burnt the building, thereby destroying all the documents it housed. That act, suggested the people I spoke to in Basra, was in retaliation for Iraqi destruction during the invasion of Kuwait. The Kuwaitis are said to have repeated this pattern in several government buildings, making a point of targeting strategic buildings and documents.

The story of Kuwaiti participation in acts of arson and looting is one that I heard in more than one city near the border with Kuwait. Iraqis in Baghdad expressed their conviction that some of their compatriots had been paid by Kuwait to plunder Iraqi buildings, documents and antiquities.

In Samawa, a town in the Al- Muthanna province, not far from the borders with Saudi Arabia, Sobhi Jabbar Haj Yunus spoke at length about that looting. Yunus, now in his 60s, is a venerable tribal chief and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. He said US forces in Samawa did nothing to stop the systematic looting of Babylonian, Sumerian, and Assyrian antiquities. Theft of antiquities was pervasive throughout the province, he said, suggesting that the manner in which it was taking place was systematic. The perpetrators, he said, were conducting clandestine archaeological excavations and taking away their discoveries en masse, not simply stealing artefacts. He said it was not unusual for 20 people, even a 100, to take place in the digs.

“We have approached more than once the commander of the First Marine Infantry Division, which is deployed just outside Samawa, and asked him to protect the antiquities and the city. He told us that they have priorities other than protecting antiquities and that he has insufficient number of men to meet all the security needs of the area,” Yunus said.

“I’m an old man who has lived through the fall of a number of Iraqi regimes — those headed by Qassem, Aref and Saddam. We have never seen such intentional chaos. Previously, it had taken no more than a week for stability to return after the fall of a regime. So far we have lived in a state of chaos for three months, and I don’t think the chaos will ever end, for it is intentional. Iraq has been condemned to extinction. Neither the Americans nor Iraq’s neighbours want Iraqis to stand tall again or have a strong and independent state. Everyone is slaughtering Iraq. They have dug us all a mass grave — in the name of democracy,” Yunus said.

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