The thieves of Baghdad


JUST AS Saddam Hussein keeps promising to open Iraq's nuclear weapons facilities to inspection, his officials keep promising to return treasures stripped from Kuwait's National Museum. Last September, Iraqi soldiers made off with 17 truckloads of mostly Islamic art, the cream of a collection valued at $1 billion.

What was left was mostly plundered or destroyed by Iraqi troops who torched the museum's galleries, thus gutting Kuwait's past with the same spiteful pyromania they directed against Kuwait's oilfields. Paintings, sculpture, carpets, manuscripts, tapestries: all this was in Kuwait's museum, along with 8,000 coins and 13,000 books.

Nobody knows how much of this has been kept safely in Baghdad, or what was looted by Iraqi troops, who carried off telephones and chairs as well as huge pottery jars from Greco-Roman times. The pillage was deliberate, a crime meant to erase Kuwait's distinctive history as a flourishing Persian Gulf city-state. The willful nature of this vandalism needs to be kept in mind as Iraq's own cultural losses become known.

The fate of Iraq's abundance of historical, religious and archeological sites is still to be measured.

But there is a distinction between unintended damage to ancient monuments and vandalism as state policy.

These were common crimes, carried out by an army whose commander was less a chief of state than a prince of thieves.

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