The Library During Times of Armed Conflict:
A look at Iraq’s National Library and Archives
2.The destruction of the Iraq National Library and Archives in 2003:
2a. Brief description of the political situation:
Once again, the state of the library was directly impacted by the political and social issues within Iraq. After the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration regained earlier concerns over Saddam’s noncompliance with UN policies concerning weapons of mass destruction. In 2002, after Saddam once again failed to fully comply with searches performed by the UN, American and British forces declared an end to diplomacy. On March 17, 2003, U.S. President Bush ordered Saddam to step down from his office and leave Iraq within 48 hours or face war. He also stated that U.S. forces may step in to help establish a new government and stabilize the country. When Saddam refused to step down, U.S. and allied forces began their attack on March 20. Iraqi forces were quickly defeated, and the U.S. took control of Baghdad on April 9. More cities fell on April 10, 11, and 13, and President Bush declared an end to major fighting on May 1. (“Iraq War,” n.d.)
2b. The looting and burning of INLA:
A brief note: There are many reports of what was lost at INLA during this time, and some are contradictory. This post will focus on the facts reported by Nabil Al-Tikriti, based on interviews conducted in May of 2003, as well as statistics reported by Saad Eskander, who was made the Director General of INLA following these events.
Beginning on April 10 and continuing April 12-13, INLA was looted and burned. A few days prior, staff members were ordered to destroy all records related to the Ba’athist regime, and during the looting, fires were expertly set with accelerants. It is speculated that the destruction of the library was planned either by the Ba’athist regime itself, or by party loyalists. The looting was carried out by poor people in need of money, and regime loyalists aiming to destroy any information which could be used as enemy propaganda or evidence against the Ba’athist regime. Some documents from the archives were taken by the U.S. military and CIA to search for evidence against Saddam.
The first fires only damaged the lobby and main reading room, so staff and volunteers blocked the door and began moving as many materials as possible–beginning with the books. (Al-Tikriti, 2007) More fires and looting cut this process short, and in the end, INLA lost about 60% of its archival collections, 25% of its book collections, 90% of its map collections, and 95% of its photographic collections (Eskander, 2011). Even those materials that were saved suffered quite a bit of damage when being moved. Before the invasion, an extremely valuable collection of documents from the Hashemite and Ottoman periods were removed from INLA to the basement at the General Board of Tourism for safekeeping. They escaped the fires, but were later damaged when the basement flooded. The cause of this flood is officially unknown, but it is suspected this was purposefully done (in case the basement contained any materials related to Saddam’s rule). Although discovered and moved to cool storage in December of 2003, the collection suffered major damage. It is estimated that around 60% of this collection has been totally lost. (Al-Tikriti, 2007)
It should be noted that at least some of this could have been avoided. In January 2003, cultural heritage professionals warned the U.S. Department of Defense of the potential for the looting and destruction of cultural heritage sites. While such places as the Ministry of Oil, Heritage Hotel, the airport, and other similarly important locations received U.S. military protection, major cultural heritage institutions did not. (Zgonjanin, 2005) When Iraqi staff members approached soldiers for help, they were sent away. Two members of the National Museum appealed to a U.S. colonel, and were promised protection. However, this protection did not arrive until after April 14, when the massive cultural destruction became international news. (Al-Tikriti, 2007) In fact, when asked on April 11 whether there was a plan to restore order, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, infamously said, “Stuff happens” (as cited in Garcia, 2007, p. 355). In this, the U.S. was and still is strongly criticized for its failure to adhere to international law. As an occupying force in a foreign country, the U.S. was obligated to protect the cultural property of Iraq from destruction and looting (Garcia, 2007). This failure was condemned by former chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, Martin Sullivan. In his letter of resignation, he expressed his belief that the destruction and looting was foreseeable and could have been prevented by U.S. military action. Sullivan also criticized the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, for his failure to comprehend the significant cultural losses suffered by the Iraqi people.
2c. Brief cultural analysis:
These events highlight the complex relationships people have with culture, especially during times of war. In this case, Iraq was dealing with war and extreme political and social unrest. Some of the Iraqi people were in such dire straits, they were willing to loot their own cultural institutions for priceless objects to sell. This really exemplifies the desperate situation of the time, as well as the way people have come to view information as a commodity. Other Iraqi people were so entrenched in the propaganda of Saddam’s regime that they were willing to destroy their own cultural heritage to protect a fallen dictator. This proves just how powerful INLA’s contents were. Loyalists did not seek to destroy INLA’s people, but its books, manuscripts and records. The words and ideas contained inside were what people really valued and feared. Even the U.S. saw the political power of these materials, even if it failed to see the larger cultural value. Anyone in control of INLA had the potential to wage a different kind of war–a war of access to information.
These events also illustrate–in rather violent terms–the internal struggles of a nation in opposition with itself. While outside forces were involved in creating the conditions for such destruction and looting to occur, Iraq was obviously already primed before anyone else interfered. As mentioned previously, leading up to its destruction, INLA was stripped of its intellectual freedom. It was merely the product of the Ba’athist regime, and only represented that specific culture and ideology. To the unrepresented and underserved people of Iraq, INLA was part of the problem. At the very least, INLA lost its impact within the larger culture of Iraq. In fact, culture in general seemed to become undervalued once INLA was brought under Saddam’s control. This would explain why Iraq’s own people were involved in the looting and destruction of its National Library and Archives. It is a very literal display of the country’s complex internal issues.
*This topic to be continued next Topical Tuesday.
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