Saturday, 10 December 2005

Iraq Museum looting: US responsibility maintained

Reading Susanne Osthoff's friends' blog for her release, I followed a link to the German Wikipedia entry for her, which itself included a link to a newpaper article that maintained that the US held responsibility for the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Ole Rothenborg interviewed Khaled Bayomi, who said that, on the 8th of April 2003, US soldiers "shot two Sudanese guards", "told people to run for grabs inside the building", then "broke down the doors to the Justice Department, residing in the neighbouring building, and looting was carried on to there".

Rothenborg's interview was published in Dagens Nyheter on the 11th of April 2003 and reprinted on the Centre for Research on Globalisation website on the 15th of April 2003. Matthew Bogdanos investigated the claims that the US had killed museum guards and encouraged looting.

In the American Journal of Archaeology in July 2005, Matthew Bogdanos explained that he was convinced that they had been "proved completely false" (2005: 483), because US soldiers "entered the compound for the first time" on the 16th of April 2003 (2005: 503).

Why, then, was the Wikipedia entry, if not itself making those false claims, promoting Rothenborg's interview, which does? It was, after all, only established on the 29th of November 2005. There are a few reasons, all of which probably have some truth to them:
  • the Wikipedia entry was (presumably) written by someone who spoke German as a first language, while Bogdanos's article was written in English; however, the Wikipedia entry references the English translation of Rothenborg's report [so the author must have had reasonable access to sources written in English];
  • the Wikipedia entry was written without recent research into looting in Iraq; but, there are links to work on looting in Iraq in 2004, albeit only to Susanne Osthoff's;
  • the Wikipedia author's research confirmed the original allegations; interestingly, googling "Matthew Bogdanos looting Iraq Museum Dagens Nyheter" and "Matthew Bogdanos looting Iraq Museum Ole Rothenborg" returned only one result that did anything other than uncritically reproduce Rothenborg's interview, in which, on the 4th September 2003, Stephen Smith said that, "allegations that American troops invited and provoked looting are made by a number of sources" - without citing any sources other than Rothenborg - and that "together they form a convincing testimony"; and
  • the Wikipedia author's research couldn't find Matthew Bogdanos's article in order to learn that what they thought had happened, in fact had not; this seems to be the critical point.
Specifically trying to find Matthew Bogdanos's (2005) article:
  • there was nothing on the first page of google's results for "Bogdanos looting Iraq Museum";
  • there was one link on the second page of results that itself linked to Bogdanos's work, though it was only through my knowledge of Francis Deblauwe's archive that I thought to follow it;
  • there was only an indirect reference to the allegations in one piece on the third page of search results, which related that Matthew Bogdanos was "still infuriated by the suggestion that, as he puts it, 'Coalition forces stood idly by as looters ransacked the museum.' That, he insists, 'is simply and undeniably factually inaccurate'" (though, it's worth noting that he responded to the US military taking until the 16th of April 2003 to get to the museum, after an appeal on the 12th, "with an equal measure of outrage" - "'It's not sinister. It's not evil. It's inexcusable', he says");
  • there was a nondescript link to it from Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAFE)'s Iraq resources page on the fourth page of results; and
  • there was nothing on the fifth page, though I didn't check any after that.
Realistically, you had to know the article existed, or at the very least you had to work in the area and therefore access those few places it was splashed, to have found it. The Wikipedia author couldn't've known that Khaled Bayomi's eye-witness testimony had been unreliable or that the narrative presented in Ole Rothenborg's interview had been undermined.

This demonstrates a central problem in archaeological work: even if the knowledge has a direct relevance to people's daily lives (as information about the behaviour of the many sides in the Iraq War and their treatment of communities' cultural heritage does), even if it is in public demand, even if it is published and made publicly available, it can still slip out of or never enter public consciousness.

Archaeologists and other cultural workers or cultural producers (and even lawyers and soldiers) need to find ways, not only to make their work publicly available, but to make it publicly visible. If we do not, key points in debates in politics and society will be lost, to the detriment of both those debates and the lives they affect. Hopefully, I can contribute to this project here.

[Updated on the 24th of December 2005]

Bogdanos, M. 2005: "The casualities of war: The truth about the Iraq Museum". American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 109, Number 3, 477-526.
Rothenborg, O. 2003: "US forces deliberately encouraged the looting". Dagens Nyheter, 15th April. Available at:

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