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Summary of “Picking up the Stolen Pieces of Iraq’s Cultural Heritage" by David Johnston

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has recovered the stones, will return them on Wednesday to Iraqi authorities at a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania's archaeology museum, which plans to display the pieces -- before they are returned to Iraq -- as an example of the continuing threat to the country's cultural heritage. The stones, called cylinder seals, constitute a fraction of the antiquities believed to have been looted from Iraq since the American invasion, according to law enforcement officials and archaeologists. The artifacts include catalogued objects taken from museums and a large but uncertain number of items, like the cylinder seals, that were pillaged from archaeological sites around the country.

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Outside observers of U.S. military planning in Iraq often focus on the apparent failure to protect Iraq's cultural heritage from every contingency, leaving it vulnerable to collateral damage or attack from looters and art thieves. Questions have been raised about the possible lack of U.S. military preparation for what seemed like inevitable consequences of invasion (archaeological site looting, looting of the Iraq Museum, etc.) and the lack of military assets in Baghdad during the April 10-15, 2003 timeframe, which allowed the most high-profile events (the looting and burning of the Iraq National Library, the looting of the Iraq National Museum, etc. ) to continue over a period of days. Questions have also been raised about the appropriate U.S. response to the proliferation of mosque bombings that began in 2003 and accelerated following the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine Complex in Samarra. The decision by adversaries to purposely target religious and cultural sites, and the potential for copy-cat destruction of cultural heritage sites as a mechanism to enflame opposing forces and demoralize the population at large — last seen during the campaign in the Balkans — became a factor in the Iraq campaign ... and a possibility that cannot be ignored in future situations no matter where they take place. Other observers have questioned the Coalition's decision to dig trenches and construct facilities such as helipads at sites such as Babylon, build enhanced runways near the ancient site Ur, and maintain large encampments at sites such as Kish rather than build those same facilities adjacent to, or away from, these sites. At Kish, U.S. forces reportedly refused Iraq officials demands to inspect the site and has rreportedly not responded to Iraq's formal demand to to leave.

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Against the backdrop of the destruction of Iraqi heritage over the past quarter of a century, this article critically reviews key aspects of the current state of Iraq’s cultural heritage, including damage to heritage buildings caused by Daesh in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. We bring together Iraqi and non-Iraqi expertise in heritage, archaeology, and human rights law to frame our approach, building on the movement to link cultural diversity, heritage, and cultural rights. We emphasise the need for planning to enhance protection of Iraq’s heritage, in particular through the preparation of inventories, the provision of resources for heritage education in schools and the development of Iraq’s museum sector. Iraq’s presence on the UNESCO World Heritage Lists needs to be enhanced, and the issues of illicit site looting and traffic in looted antiquities must be addressed within international contexts. Iraq’s future accession as State Party to the 1999 Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention is a priority in achieving these goals. The paper stresses the need for co-creation of heritage knowledge and a gender-sensitive human rights approach for the future of Iraq’s globally significant cultural heritage. The cultural heritage of Iraq, specifically its archaeological and historical heritage, is of major significance for understanding global-scale developments in human history, including some of the world’s earliest examples of farming villages, cities, writing, mathematics, empires and many other socio-cultural attributes of human societies (Foster and Foster ; Bahrani ).The involvement of scholars in the appraisal and marketisation of high-value artefacts such as cuneiform tablets has remained a contested practice since the First Gulf War (Brodie ).

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On the whole, in removing Saddam Hussein, the United States rid Iraq of a brutal regime, but it also unseated a dictator that had found a way to protect and preserve Iraq's cultural heritage. Shortly after American forces entered Baghdad, American soldiers began attacking symbols of the Hussein dictatorship. Statutes of Hussein were leveled by tank fire and American soldiers and Iraqis joined forces in removing and destroying thousands of portraits and artifacts from the Hussein era. Arguably, these artistic representations of the Hussein regime did not rise to the level of internationally protected cultural property,182 and thus their destruction was permissible, if not laudable. However, the zealous destruction of these cultural objects surely reflects the symbolic importance of cultural property.

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Donders, Y. 2002. Towards a Right to Cultural Identity? Antwerp: Intersentia.

Donnelly, J. 2013. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foster, B. R., and K. P. Foster. 2009. Civilizations of Ancient Iraq. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brodie, N. 2011b. “Scholarship and Insurgency? the Study and Trade of Iraqi Antiquities”. Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects: Law, Ethics, and the Realities. An Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop, Perth: University of Western Australia, 4–5 August 2011.

Brusasco, P. 2016. “The Assyrian Sculptures in the Mosul Cultural Museum: A Preliminary Assessment of What Was on Display before Islamic State’s Attack.” Journal of near Eastern Studies 75: 205–248

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Summary of “Picking up the Stolen Pieces of Iraq’s Cultural Heritage" by David Johnston
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