Iraqi Museum Reopens Amid Security Fears

A replica of a golden headdress, one of the Iraqi National Museum's iconic treasures. i

A replica of a golden headdress, one of the Iraqi National Museum's iconic treasures. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
A replica of a golden headdress, one of the Iraqi National Museum's iconic treasures.

A replica of a golden headdress, one of the Iraqi National Museum's iconic treasures.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

Iraq's National Museum formally reopened Monday, nearly six years after the building was ransacked by looters in the chaos after the U.S.-led invasion.

Some 15,000 items were plundered at the time, and U.S. commanders were widely criticized for failing to protect one of the richest collections of antiquities in the Middle East.

Only eight of the museum's more than 20 halls have been reopened, but those halls were packed with dignitaries and media as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made his way through the exhibition.

Maliki described the museum as a "spot of civilization that has had its share of destruction." He was referring to the days in April 2003 when looters smashed the museum's display cases, scooping up precious artifacts while U.S.-led troops did nothing to stop them.

Maliki thanked nations such as the United States and Italy, which helped in recovering some of the looted artifacts and restoring the building.

The opening of the museum was delayed because of a dispute among tourism officials who wanted a public sign that Iraq's antiquities are back on display, and museum officials, who feared security was not yet strong enough to protect their treasures from another plundering.

Qahtan al-Jubouri, the minister for tourism and antiquities, said those fears were unjustified. He said a special security force has been deployed to protect the treasures and, indeed, security was as much on display in the museum as were the artifacts.

As many of one-third of the people in the halls were carrying guns, most of them as bodyguards for the prime minister, his officials and the foreign dignitaries.

For their part, museum officials mounted a pared-down exhibit, showing a range of less-precious objects that stretched from the Assyrian and Babylonian eras through the period of high Islamic culture. One hall was devoted to some of the roughly 6,000 looted objects that have been recovered.

Abdul Zahra al-Talkani, a spokesman for the Tourism Ministry, acknowledged that it is only a start.

Talkani said officials want to reopen the entire museum, but that is a process that will take time and effort. In the meantime, he said, the government has a responsibility to show part of Iraq's heritage to the public.

The museum's most precious artifacts remain under lock and key, visible only on the glossy posters handed out to the dignitaries. They also were represented by a young Iraqi woman who wore a replica of one of the museum's iconic treasures — a golden headdress, topped with three large gold flowers that stuck up like daisies in a pot. She remained behind for the news cameras as the dignitaries left.

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