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Abstract

As American troops entered Baghdad as a liberating force on April 9,

2003, a wave of looting engulfed the city. Iraqi looters ransacked

government buildings, stores, churches, and private homes stealing

anything they could carry and defacing symbols of the defunct Hussein

regime. American authorities had not anticipated the magnitude or the

fervor of the civil disorder. But the looting over the course of two to three

days at Iraq's National Museum, home to the world's greatest collection of

Babylonian, Sumerian, and Assyrian antiquities, stood apart from the rest

of the pillaging and vandalism in Baghdad. Months before, prominent

members of the international archaeological community contacted the U.S.

Department of Defense and U.S. State Department with concerns about the

Museum. Nonetheless, as the threat materialized, American forces largely

stood idle as a rampaging mob ravaged the collection. Initial reports noted

that 170,000 objects had been taken including some of the world's most

priceless ancient treasures. In the following weeks, the anger of Iraqis,

archaeologists, and cultural aesthetes bubbled over in a series of accusatory

and condemnatory newspaper reports and editorials

Although the Museum's losses were far less than originally feared,

(amounting to the loss of only about thirty-three major pieces and an

additional 8,000-18,000 artifacts), the incident focused international

attention on an important issue of international law, namely the

protections afforded cultural property during armed conflicts. The looting

of the Museum and several other important cultural sites in Baghdad and

throughout Iraq has raised important political, moral, and legal questions:

Does the United States have an obligation to protect the greatest cultural

assets of the Iraqi people? Does American military policy provide

adequate guidance to ensure that the cultural property of the Iraqi people

will be preserved? Finally, at what point is the responsibility to protect

cultural property waived by countervailing principles of military

necessity?

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