Baghdad Museum Director Flees Job, Iraq

The director of the Baghdad Museum, Donny George, left his job earlier this month and fled the country last Sunday. He complained of interference by Shiite Muslim extremists with connections in the Iraqi government. New York Times correspondent Ed Wong, reporting from Baghdad, talks with Alex Chadwick.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

After the fall of Baghdad three years ago, the looting of the National Archeological Museum came to represent the U.S. failure to secure that country. Little by little, some artifacts - which include the earliest examples known of civilization - were found or returned. A hopeful sign. Now we learn that the museum's director - a man named Donny George - has not only quit his job, he has fled the country for Syria. He says he was being threatened by Shiite extremists in the government. I spoke earlier with Ed Wong of the New York Times in Baghdad.

Mr. ED WONG (New York Times): Donny George has told our newspaper - a trade publication based in London - that basically the new people who come into the ministry have no knowledge of antiquities, have no appreciation for antiquities or for their preservation. He's also saying that some of these officials only care about antiquities from the Islamic era of Iraq's history. And as you know, Iraq had a long history of flourishing civilizations before Islam came here. There was — there were the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations here in Iraq, and Christianity also had some of its earliest roots here in Iraq.

CHADWICK: He said that his 19-year-old son was threatened — his life was threatened. Mr. George is a Christian. He was living in a Sunni neighborhood. I guess things were getting pretty, pretty dark there. But especially within the museum, he felt that he was threatened there by these Shiites?

Mr. WONG: I spoke with a Western diplomat here who has some ties to antiquities work here in Iraq. And this diplomat told me that Donny George had been telling people shortly before he left that he had felt threatened by fundamentalists because he was a mid-level Baath party member back under Saddam Hussein's government. As you know, the Baath party was the ruling party in Iraq and many professionals - especially educated Iraqis - joined the Baath party to get ahead in their professions.

CHADWICK: Well, who was interfering in his work, do you know? And what was their goal?

Mr. WONG: In his words, the people who had taken over the ministry belonged to the Sadr organization. Basically, the group that is controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr, who's a radical Shiite cleric. And Donny George is basically saying that Mr. Sadr's group appointed so many officials to the ministry, and that they were pushing for him to turn his attention to Islamic artifacts rather than artifacts from different periods in Iraq's history. And furthermore, he said the Iraqi government was almost out of funding for the payment of guards who would guard antiquity sites - who would guard some of the most ancient ruins in Iraq. And he was saying that this guard force, which numbered around 1,400, faced the possibility of being dissolved if someone didn't step in to provide financing.

CHADWICK: Well, what is going to happen to all these artifacts and antiquities now that were returned to the museum and I think are held there?

Mr. WONG: Well, right now the museum's hallways are sealed with concrete. And Donny George and some other museum officials had ordered that to be done a few months ago when there was a mass kidnapping near the museum. They basically felt that the museum might come under attack or might be looted again soon, so they ordered these walls to be built. Now some of the new officials might decide to take those walls down, and who knows what could happen to the artifacts after that happens.

CHADWICK: Ed Wong reports for the New York Times from Baghdad. Ed, thank you.

Mr. WONG: Great, thanks a lot, Alex.

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