Monday, 12 October 2020

Economic woes exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak have prompted a rise in illegal activity in Iraq

Despite the recent claims made by the British Museum's St John Simpson that material showing up in the UK was all looted from Iraq before 2004, it seems the looting problem never really went away, so you wonder where the BM gets its information from (Coronavirus: Iraq's heritage sites suffer renewed wave of looting amid pandemic  Middle East Eye  12 October 2020). This year, with resources to protect sites diverted by authorities having to deal with a struggling economy, social unrest and the coronavirus pandemic, looting has picked up once more. Sites have been raided in recent decades, archaeologist Ali al-Rubaie told Middle East Eye:

which started with the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Baath regime [1990-2003], there has been a sharp rise in looting activities. Despite the existence of severe punishments, the activity never stopped." At the time, the weakening of state institutions and the worsening of living conditions due to unprecedented economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council encouraged people to engage in looting. Local residents saw antiquities as an easy way to make a living while the country's economy was in tatters. While most archaeological missions were completed before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, some of the locally recruited excavators ended up jobless and came back to plunder sites. Rubaie said such instances took place in Dhi Qar's Tell Jokha, also known as Umm al-Aqarib, where the Sumerian kingdom of Umma was located. "After the Baath regime's fall and the subsequent security vacuum, some of the workers [from a withdrawn archaeological mission] came back and illegally excavated the hill," he said. Tell Jokha is emblematic of the devastating effect of the US invasion, which led to widespread looting activity. After the US dismantled Iraq's law enforcement units, this ancient Sumerian city was intensively robbed for months, to the point where holes pockmarked the surfaces of the site and innumerable artefacts were pillaged before any archaeological unit could resume its activities. 

There has been a resurgence in vandalism since last year, especially after the governorate witnessed violent protests that were followed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Many police forces working in rural areas of Nasiriyah withdrew to their barracks out of fear of retaliation from powerful tribes seeking to avenge the killing of protesters. This created a new power vacuum in the province, further preventing sufficient protection of historical sites.

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