|Two senior cultural advisers to President Bush have resigned in fury at the US military's failure to prevent the looting of antiquities from Baghdad's national museum.
The resignations of Martin Sullivan, chairman of the president's advisory committee on cultural property, and Gary Vikan, a committee member, became public yesterday as the FBI announced it had dispatched agents to Iraq to help try to recover the stolen artifacts.
"It didn't have to happen. In a pre-emptive war that's the kind of thing you should have planned for," said Mr Sullivan, who has chaired the panel for eight years.
Mr Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery, referring to 80,000 tablets in the Baghdad museum's collection, said: "If we understood the value of Sumerian cuneiform tablets to our past, as we do with oil getting us somewhere in our cars, I don't think this would have happened."
Earlier this week, Pentagon officials admitted there had been no specific plans in place to protect the institution from looting, or to prevent the burning of the national library there, apparently causing the loss of priceless manuscripts centuries old. Efforts had been made to protect cultural sites from being targeted by missiles or caught up in ground fighting, but not to shield them from looters.
The US government has announced awards for those aiding the return of the items, and FBI director Robert Mueller said agents were in Iraq to help. Interpol alerts had been issued to prevent the looted items being traded internationally "on both the open and black markets", he added.
"We recognise the importance of these treasures to the Iraqi people and as well to the world as a whole," Mr Mueller said. "And we are firmly committed to doing whatever we can in order to secure the return of these treasures to the people of Iraq."
Historians and art experts meeting in Paris yesterday under the auspices of the UN cultural agency Unesco said the looting may have been organised, possibly from abroad. Those removing the items had the keys to open museum vaults, they said.
"It looks as if part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action," said McGuire Gibson, an Iraqi specialist at the University of Chicago. "It really looks like a very professional job... They were able to obtain keys from somewhere for the vaults and were able to take out the very important, the very best material. I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country. In fact I'm pretty sure it was."
Mr Gibson said he had already heard unconfirmed reports of looted items being offered for sale outside Iraq.
Bush’s Cultural Aides Quit Over Sack of Baghdad’s Treasures
Oliver Burkeman in Washington
Friday April 18, 2003