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Cultural cleansing in Iraq -
How much can a people take?

Hans von Sponeck, TFF Board member


February 1, 2010

“Cultural Cleansing in Iraq
Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered”

Edited by R.W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq Ismael
Pluto Press, London, 2010


Every one in Baghdad knew Mohammed Hikmet Ghani. The city was full of his sculptures. They were important reminders of the richness of Mesopotamian history and culture. Iraq had seen much better days. With the few materials Ghani had in his possession, he struggled to convert his artistic spirit into physical form. All he produced during those years reflected the suffering of the Iraqi people forced to live under sanctions and dictatorship.

Just before the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, he had completed a first mould of a group of figures, women standing in a circle and gazing at a box in front of them. “They want to know what is in the box, what destiny is awaiting them. But they do not have the key to open the box”, explained the famous sculptor. The artist and the people anxiously hoped for an end of 13 years of sanctions. Instead they were about to face a devastation and onslaught of unimaginable ferocity. Many are dead today and the artist lives as a refugee in Amman.

The contours of the human tragedy resulting from the illegal attack of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation are becoming more and more visible. Much has still to be discovered and for the wrong doing a court of justice has yet to be found. In the meantime, the coffers of evidence are filling up.

‘Cultural Cleansing  in Iraq’, a recently published account* of the extent of destruction of Iraq’s heritage and the assassination of the country’s intellectual elite has added a new and gruesome chapter to the story of post-war Iraq.

Through this publication initiated by the Brussels Tribunal, twelve  specialists, both Iraqi and non-Iraqi, have made it possible to grasp more fully the immense crimes against humanity for which many but foremost the US/UK occupation has to take the responsibility.

‘Cultural Cleansing in Iraq’ convincingly points to the profound degrading of a unified culture under the occupation and the eruption of hostile sectarianism that did not exist before. There was a formidable determination by the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to implement an institutional and structural clean-up. The authors conclude that there had been systematic plans to ‘empty Iraq from its brain’. The authors provide  facts and much circumstantial evidence and refer to ‘genocide by other means’ and ‘historical annihilation’.

Killer squads on the streets and in detention centers were responsible for the death of hundreds of doctors, scientists, professionals, men and women. The Brussels Tribunal has compiled a list containing 413 names of Iraqi academics who have been murdered between 2003 and 2009. These were non-partisan and non-sectarian assassinations. There may be many more the reader is told.

To-date there seems little direct evidence of US culpability. Evidence, however, exists of continuous interference in post-invasion Iraq by many outside groups. These  ranged from pro-Iranian forces to secret services of the occupying forces, those of neighbouring and other countries of the Middle East including Mossad, criminal gangs and others.

Using historic sites such as Babylon, Ur and Samarra for military purposes and refusing to protect sites of national pride and historic memory including the capital’s museum of antiquity and the national library while ensuring the safety of the ministries of oil and interior are given by the authors as evidence that the occupation forces ignored, without hesitation, their responsibilities under international law.

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A free and democratic society was never the aim of the attack, they contend. They also reject the notion that the murder of the mind and the destruction of Iraq’s heritage could be explained by the occupiers’ naïve-ness or by the incompetence of the US civilian authorities. What evolved did not constitute a series of unrelated and unpredictable mishaps. Robberies and killings occurred under the watchful eyes of occupying soldiers. The world is aware of more. The horrifying pictures of Abu Ghraib prison in the vicinity of al Fallujah which was another location of carnage, are indelibly stored in the minds of victims and television viewers around the globe. The excuse of collateral damage does not hold. Furthermore, the authors note, there exists a culture of impunity when it comes to Iraqi losses of life and personal or national treasure. They consider it malicious to blame the damage of looting of cultural artifacts on the conditions of desperate local people rather than on the occupying force.

None of the authors claims that direct or indirect accountability rests solely with the invaders. Their point that the cleansing of culture and mind and the destruction of the social fabric of a nation is the result of an illegal war can not be dismissed.

Those who are responsible and accountable will certainly disagree. They will have little chance to succeed. The book is a powerful introduction to cultural cleansing in Iraq, which some prefer to call cultural genocide. The authors agree that their work must be followed up by more research for the historic record, for the public knowledge and for the prosecution of those responsible.


Hans-C. von Sponeck
TFF Board member
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000)



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