BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will reopen later this month its renowned national museum, home to priceless artefacts plundered in the unchecked chaos following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, an Iraqi minister said.
The long-awaited reopening marks a milestone in the government’s efforts to retrieve and preserve artefacts and archaeological sites from Iraq’s history after almost six years of theft, destruction and violence.
The country is said to be the site of the ‘cradle of civilisation’, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the looting of relics — some thousands of years old — was seen as a tragedy for Iraq and for the world.
Qahtan al-Jibouri, Iraq’s minister of state for tourism and antiquities, said the government had been renovating the museum in central Baghdad for several months and planned to open its doors to the public before the end of February.
The museum and other archaeological sites will be protected by a newly formed Interior Ministry force called the “relics protection force,” Jibouri said in an interview.
The force will aim to prevent a repeat of the devastation of April 2003 when looters robbed the museum of some 15,000 priceless artefacts as part of a wave of theft from public buildings after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.
The looting hardened criticism of the United States, whose troops stood guard at the Iraqi Oil Ministry but did nothing to stop massive looting elsewhere. “Stuff happens,” then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quipped.
Officials have since struggled to rebuild the museum’s collection, recouping about a third of what was looted.
Even as violence across Iraq dropped sharply, officials put off reopening the museum until its security could be assured. Now, with violence at its lowest point since the war began, the museum — and Iraq — has been deemed ready.
Jibouri said Iraq was trying to encourage the return and repatriation of other stolen artefacts, offering a reward and promising not to file charges for ill-gotten goods.
“A good number of relics are being returned,” he said. The amount of the reward depends on officials’ assessment of the piece’s worth along with its authenticity.
Jibouri’s ministry has also been reaching out through Iraqi embassies the world over in hopes of tracking down other artefacts plundered before or after 2003. Even under Saddam, poorly guarded archaeological sites were widely plundered.
Peruvian officials recently handed over three pieces to the Iraqi embassy in Lima, including a personal letter written on a clay tablet dating to ancient Babylon.
The museum is a central plank in the strategy of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government to bolster tourism in Iraq and protect valuable historical sites.
“The ministry is serious about carrying out its plans, but our funding is extremely limited,” he said.
However, security, not funding, is still the chief concern in assessing the future of Iraq’s tourism industry.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians visit religious sites in Iraq each year, but Jibouri said he hopes to broaden that to include cultural tourism and visitors from other countries.
Iraq has received funding or expertise from the United States and Italy to restore ancient sites and to build centres for training and maintaining relics, Jibouri said.
Washington provided $13 million (9 million pounds) to help restore the museum and $700,000 to repair ruins at the ancient city of Babylon, which have been damaged by U.S. and coalition soldiers.
Editing by Missy Ryan