The museum experienced extensive looting and damage during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad, with the loss of an unknown proportion of its 170,000 ancient artifacts. Some of the looting was evidently professional, with the most valuable pieces taken. It has been very difficult to assess the level of looting, as there was no centralized inventory of the collection.
In the months preceding the invasion, starting in December and January, various antiquities experts, including representatives from the American Council for Cultural Policy asked The Pentagon and the U.K. government to ensure the museum's safety from both combat and looting. No promises were made, though U.S. forces did avoid bombing the site.
The U.S. government faced considerable criticism for doing nothing to protect the valuable museum after occupying Baghdad. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum said the looting was "entirely predictable and could easily have been stopped." Martin Sullivan, chairman of the U.S. President'vs Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, and State Department cultural advisor Gary Vikan both resigned in protest.
When asked why the U.S. military did not try to guard the museum in the days after the invasion succeeded, Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "If you remember, when some of that looting was going on, people were being killed, people were being wounded.... It's as much as anything else a matter of priorities." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who described the period of looting in general as "untidiness", said of the museum's looting, "To try to pass off the fact of that unfortunate activity to a deficit in the war plan strikes me as a stretch." Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general but this museum in particular." The Geneva Conventions require an occupying force to safeguard cultural facilities such as museums from damage. Critics have noted that the US forces quickly posted troops to guard the Iraqi Ministry of Petroleum building and various governmental palaces, but made no similar efforts for the museum.
Dr. Donny George, General Director Research Studies for the Board of Antiquities in Iraq, said of the looting, "It's the crime of the century, because it affects the heritage of all mankind". After the U.S. Marines set up headquarters in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, George said he went there to plead for troops to protect the remainder of the Museum collection, but no guards were sent for another three days.
A few days later agents of the FBI were sent to Iraq to search for stolen Museum property.
On April 18, 2003, the Baghdad Museum Project was formed in the United States with a proposal to assure the National Museum of Iraq every possibility of the eventual safe return of its collection, even if that is to take hundreds of years. Rather than focus only on law enforcement and the current antiquities market, the group seeks to (1) establish a comprehensive online catalog of all cultural artifacts in the museum's collection, (2) create a virtual Baghdad Museum that is accessible to the general public over the Internet, (3) build a 3D collaborative workspace within the virtual Baghdad Museum for design and fundraising purposes, and (4) establish a resource center within the virtual Baghdad Museum for community cultural development.
Various ancient items believed looted from the museum have surfaced in Jordan, the United States, Switzerland, and Japan, and on eBay. Among those arrested for attempting to bring looted antiquities into the United States were a reporter and a camera man for Fox News.
On May 7, 2003, U.S. officials announced that nearly 40,000 manuscripts and 700 artifacts belonging to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad were recovered by U.S Customs agents working with museum experts in Iraq. Some looters had returned items after promises of rewards and amnesty, and many items previously reported missing had actually been hidden in secret storage vaults at the museum prior to the outbreak of war.
On June 7, 2003, U.S. authorities announced that world famous treasures of Nimrud were recovered from a secret vault in Iraq's Central Bank. The artifacts included necklaces, plates, gold earrings, finger and toe rings, bowls and flasks. Officials said that of the 170,000 items initially believed missing, just 3,000 remained unaccounted for. And, of those, 47 were main exhibition artifacts.
In November, 2003 Coalition officials reported a few dozen of the most important items remained missing from the museum's public galleries, along with another 10,000 other items -- most of them tiny and some of them fragments.
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