Iraq

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Iraq's National Museum formally reopened today. It's been nearly six years since the building was ransacked by looters during the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

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

The newly renovated museum is showing only a limited selection of its remaining artifacts, but government officials are focusing on the symbolic value of the opening as a sign that civilization is returning to Iraq.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF: Only eight of the museums 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 of 2003 when looters smashed the museum's display cases, scooping up precious artifacts as U.S.-led troops did nothing to stop them.

Prime Minister NOURI al-MALIKI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Maliki thanked the nations such as the United States and Italy that had helped in recovering some of the looted artifacts and restoring the building.

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

The minister for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jubouri, dismissed those fears.

Mr. QAHTAN al-JUBOURI (Minister for Tourism and Antiquities): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Jubouri 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 as a 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, is spokesman for the Tourism Ministry, acknowledged that it's only a start.

Mr. ABDUL ZAHRA al-TALKANI (Spokesman, Tourism Ministry): (Foreign language spoken)

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

The museum's most precious artifacts remain under lock and key, visible only on the glossy posters handed out to the dignitaries. They were also 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.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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