NASIRIYA, Iraq: In the southern Iraq desert, the standing structures of ancient archaeological cities dot the horizon - majestic monuments to times long gone. Untouched for thousands of years, historic temples, palaces, tombs and entire dead cities are the sole witness of the passing of time.
Properly excavated, these cities could reveal valuable knowledge on the development of the human race and resolve the big mysteries of history. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. The Sumerian cities have been destroyed, ravaged by the incessant looting that started with the American invasion of Iraq. Once considered historical treasures, today crater-filled landscapes compete for space with hills of shredded pottery and broken bricks.
Looters - mainly farmers or jobless Iraqis of all ages - have destroyed the monuments of their own ancestors, erasing their own history in their tireless search for artifacts.
They leave their homes and villages seeking financial rewards. Poverty, ignorance and greed force them to change their lives and become tomb raiders - and they actually live on the sites they are robbing for months at a time. A cylinder seal, a sculpture or a cuneiform tablet can bring in desperately sought hard cash. They work all day long hoping to find an artifact that they can sell to the dealer for a mere few dollars. It is tough, dangerous work for bad pay.
"A cylinder seal or a cuneiform tablet brings in under $50 on the site for the looter from the dealer. The dealer then sells it at ten times the price," explains the archaeologist responsible for the district of Nasiriya, Abdul Amir Hamadani.
"More than 100 Sumerian cities have been destroyed by the looters since the beginning of the war," says Hamadani, who was appointed at the war's end by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq. "It's a disaster that all we are keeping watch on but about which we can do little. We are incapable of stopping the looting. We are five archaeologists, some hundred guards and, occasionally, a couple of policemen - and they are a million armed looters, backed by their tribes and the dealers.
"We are in danger every time we go on a tour to an archaeological site. A couple of weeks ago, while on site, six vehicles surrounded our cars and we were shot at. After that, we were assured that the next time, we would be killed."
If the looters are just simple peasants, the dealers in stolen antiquities are far more sophisticated. Professional smugglers, they are connected to the shadowy ring that is the international antiquities mafia and black market collectors. There's never a shortage of funds since demand for Mesopotamian artifacts is constantly high - private collectors all around the world adore Sumerian artifacts because they go back to the beginning of civilization and in order to possess such items they are ready to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of which intensifies the looting. To cover their backs, local dealers buy the protection of the big clans in the nearby city of Al-Fajr who send their own people to plunder the sites.
"The tribes are powerful, they are well armed and above all, they abide by their own laws," explains Donny Georges, the Director of the Iraq's museums and an Iraqi archaeologist of Assyrian origin appointed by the Americans a few months after the looting of the museum.
"No one can stop them. Although the Coalition forces are well aware of what is going on, no real effort is being made to stop the looting. The Italian Carabinieri (soldiers) are the only force that worked on this issue for a few months. Their efforts were fruitful in some parts of the Nasiriya district because the tribe leaders there are never interested in confronting the military."
Every military force in Iraq has it's own program of working in the city that they are controlling. Depending on their internal organization some of them work on humanitarian levels, others on protection and others - like the Carabinieri - on archaeology.
The Carabinieri unit in charge of heritage protection, known as Viper 5, used military backup on the sites to stop the looting at the beginning of this year. With the help of helicopter flyovers and foot patrol raids on the archaeological sites once or twice a week they were able to capture and imprison many looters, but in doing so also terrorized the local population. The illegal digging stopped as a result - but only for a few months.
The recent military conflict between the Al-Mahdi army, the local Shiite militia loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, and the Coalition Forces hit this protection scheme hard.
"On one hand, it forced the Viper 5 team to reduce their excursions to the archaeological sites to occasional trips, and on the other it pushed the looters to join the Al-Mahdi army," assures Hamadani.
It's no longer a question of looters versus protectors; this is a war with heavy political dimensions. The turn of events caused the Carabinieri to withdraw from a protection assignment.
"At the time it was like a pleasant dream sequence in a long nightmare," says Hamadani, "The looters did not join the Al-Mahdi army because they believe in fighting the Occupation, it's more about personal vendetta. Now they were able to intensify their activities. There were no Italian forces at the Nasiriya Museum when the library was set ablaze. The smugglers are now controlling life in this district and nothing is stopping them from looting."
"These people have no respect for anything, not even their own religion," claims Georges. "Last May, they stole the treasures of the Imam Ali in Najaf. No one really knows what was there but it is widely believed that those were the treasures of the Islamic Sultans. People have been donating their most precious objects to the Mausoleum since the birth of Islam. All that is vanished today."
According to sources inside and outside Iraq close to the smugglers, the local ringleaders are members of the old regime and are known to archaeologists, police, Interpol, private collectors and antiquities dealers. They work out of Baghdad and other big cities in Iraq; they secure the cash flow to the looters, and are capable of smuggling anything outside the country.
There seems to be no end in sight to this horrific scenario. The coalition military forces are now causing irreparable damage themselves: they have transformed the historical city of Babylon in southern Iraq into a military base, despite promises from former U.S. overseer of Iraq Paul Bremer in late June to dismantle the base.
"They have leveled archaeological grounds in parts of the site to build a landing zone for helicopters," says Zainab Bahrani, professor of Ancient Near Eastern art history and archaeology at Columbia University, who recently returned to New York City from a six-month observer mission in Iraq having been appointed by the Coalition Forces Senior Advisor for Culture.
"The continuous movements of helicopters have caused the destruction of a wall at the temple of Nabu, and the roof of the Temple of Ninmah. Both date back to the sixth century B.C." Bahrani says.
The military base at Babylon has still not been removed.
According to an archaeologist working with the Americans at the World Heritage site of Hatra, Northern Iraq, who did not want to be named, the danger is no less there than in Babylon.
The U.S. Army program to destroy military left overs from the old regime and the war is harming the ancient site - a Parthian city with a blend of Hellenistic, Roman and Arab styles. Twice a day the army conducts controlled explosions of recovered munitions and mines at the nearby military base. The constant seismic activity is damaging the stone arches in the main temple and the outer wall of the city and this may cause the collapse of parts of this site, listed as a World Heritage monument.
The anarchy that is everywhere in post-Saddam Iraq is destroying the country described in schoolbooks worldwide as the "cradle of civilization."
With over 10,000 archaeological sites still buried, humanity may just be witnessing the destruction of the cradle - the massacre of Mesopotamia.
Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly is an archaeologist and the Middle East correspondent for the French magazine Archaeologia. She has been covering the situation in Iraq for five years and wrote this article exclusively for The Daily Star.