Tuesday, 15 April 2003

Library books, letters and priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad

by Robert Fisk

click here to visit his website So yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then the arsonists. It was the final chapter in the sacking of Baghdad. The National Library and Archives ­ a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq ­ were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was set ablaze.

I saw the looters. One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law from a boy of no more than 10. Amid the ashes of Iraqi history, I found a file blowing in the wind outside: pages of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.

And the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed?

When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning ­ flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows ­ I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire". I gave the map location, the precise name ­ in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene ­ and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

There was a time when the Arabs said that their books were written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries in Baghdad. In the National Archives were not just the Ottoman records of the Caliphate, but even the dark years of the country's modern history, handwritten accounts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, with personal photographs and military diaries,and microfiche copies of Arabic newspapers going back to the early 1900s.

But the older files and archives were on the upper floors of the library where petrol must have been used to set fire so expertly to the building. The heat was such that the marble flooring had buckled upwards and the concrete stairs that I climbedhad been cracked.

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