The good news: in its waning days, the Bush administration seems finally to have ponied up substantial money ($13 million) to assist Iraq in conserving and preserving its cultural heritage.
The bad news: the new initiative, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, appears at first glance at least to focus solely on professional development for conservators and other museum professionals, rather than also including some funding to improve security on Iraq's archaeological sites. In fact, the ICHP is premised on the assumption that there is no need to improve security on the sites, since supposedly this has already been accomplished, as part of the overall improvement in security in Iraq. As Laura Bush puts it in her remarks announcing the Project, "Recent security gains and increased stability have set the stage now for a more vigorous effort to promote Iraq's cultural history."
It is true that there have been recent security gains and increased stability. The gains and increases have brought civilian casualty rates down to 2004 levels. But we know that in 2004 Iraq's archaeological sites were being looted. What we do not know is how successful the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage's site police, developed since 2004, have been in tamping down the looting. We only know that this new initiative offers no assistance to SBAH's site protection efforts.
That is disappointing, but hardly surprising. The State Department's fact sheet on the new Project touts its having spent several million dollars since 2003 in support of "numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage," including "emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property." The results, it is claimed, include "improved archaeological site security in Iraq." But there is no further information available on how much has been spent, on what site protection programs, with what results. And of course, without time-series aerial photos (which the State Department surely could force the military to share with archaeologists), we cannot know if archaeological site security has improved at all, much less whether the efforts by State have had anything to do with improving site security.
Will the State Department now take the next step and announce an initiative to assist the Iraqis in securing their sites against a future that may well be much less stable and secure than today's? Or will the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project serve as a cover for washing our hands of the problem?
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