Monday, July 2, 2012

Iraq Blocks World Monuments Fund from Babylon over Jewish Archives

In addition to new articles on Iraq apparently ending cooperation with U.S. archaeological teams in Iraq due to the issue of the Iraqi Jewish archives in U.S. custody (see herehere, and earlier post on this issue here), there is a now a report of a specific denial of a World Monuments Fund team from visiting Babylon. The AP reported yesterday:
Iraq's tourism minister blocked official visits to the site [of Babylon] by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based group that is helping Babylon secure a World Heritage site designation after three rejections.
It's payback for an unrelated dispute with the U.S. over the fate of Iraq's Jewish archives, rescued from a waterlogged basement after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and taken to the U.S.
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Its's part of a long-running dispute over the fate of the Iraqi Jewish archives. The trove of books, photos and religious items were found in Baghdad by U.S. troops and taken to the U.S. for study and preservation under an agreement with Iraqi authorities that stipulated they would be returned. 
But Iraqi authorities grew impatient to get them back, and now Tourism Minister Liwa Smaysin alleges that the U.S. sent some of the artifacts to Israel for an exhibition, a claim denied by both the U.S. State Department and Israel's Antiquities Authority. The U.S. says the archives will eventually be returned to Iraq.
The actions of Iraq's Tourism minister, in my view, are particularly unfortunate not simply because they appear to be counterproductive to the goal of protecting and promoting Iraq's cultural heritage, but also because tying such actions to the Jewish archives is a wasted opportunity.  The focus on the Jewish archives appears based on an unsubstantiated, and seemingly conspiratorial, allegation that the United States secretly sold or sent to Israel a portion of the Jewish archives (admittedly this was more plausible early on when Donald Rumsfeld was considering an offer from Hebrew University to take them in May 2003).

The predictable U.S. response to such allegations by Iraq's Tourism minister and the demand for the Jewish archives is straightforward and unequivocal. As AFP reported:
When asked for comment, US embassy spokesperson Michael McClellen said the archives were in "the temporary custody of the US National Archives and Records Administration [NARA] for conservation, preservation, and digitization." "The US Department of State is funding the final phase of the project which includes a bilingual [English and Arabic] educational exhibit of the material in the US and in Iraq," he said, adding that "all the material will return to Iraq at the conclusion of the project." 
A much more interesting - and arguably more legitimate - strategy would be for the Tourism minister to tie his actions to a demand for the return of the 43,000 boxes of seized Iraqi government documents that remain in U.S. custody.