Reopening of Museum in Baghdad Is Uncertain

New York Times, February 16, 2009

BAGHDAD — Great museums engender great debate, and there is no exception for Iraq. Officials here are at odds over the reopening of Iraq’s National Museum, the renowned institution that was pillaged after the American invasion in 2003 and has been closed to the public ever since.

Last week, Iraq’s state minister for tourism and antiquities announced that next Monday the museum would reopen, an eagerly anticipated event seen as a milestone in the country’s recovery. In a statement on Sunday, though, the Culture Ministry overruled the decision and put off indefinitely the chance for Iraqis to return to a museum that holds a rich collection of archaeological relics and art.

Jabir al-Jabiri, the senior deputy at the Culture Ministry, said in a telephone interview that the reopening announcement had been premature and surprised the ministry officials who have the final say.

“The museum is not qualified and organized to be opened,” he said, adding that thousands of relics in the museum’s storerooms were neither registered nor ready for public exhibition.

The museum has undergone extensive renovations since the violence in 2003, with assistance from other countries, including Italy and the United States.

Meanwhile, the repatriation of its looted treasures has continued, most recently with three objects that ended up in Peru, including a letter written on a tablet.

The returning holdings, though, appear to have overwhelmed the museum and its staff. The Culture Ministry’s statement said the museum had effectively become “a large warehouse” for unregistered items, adding that allowing the public to visit could jeopardize “priceless relics.” The ministry cited concerns about security around the perimeter of the museum, which is located in central Baghdad not far from the Green Zone.

But officials of the Tourism Ministry, which is under the financial and administrative oversight of the Culture Ministry, remained unmoved.

In a statement issued later on Sunday, Baha al-Mayahi, an adviser at the ministry, said he was surprised by Mr. Jabiri’s comments and reiterated that all efforts were being made to reopen next Monday. He said invitations had already been sent out to government and foreign officials.

Reached in the evening, Mr. Jabiri was not backing down either, calling the reopening announcement an “illegal action” that was outside the Tourism Ministry’s authority.

“We are going to use all legal means to close the doors of the museum to preserve our historical heritage,” Mr. Jabiri said, attributing the chaos to “parties that have no experience in government.”

The discord underscores the conflicting aims of the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. It has called the reopening of the museum, along with the preservation of archaeological sites, a high priority. But hopes of reviving a cultural institution and tourism have been tempered by declining resources and the danger that is still palpable in Baghdad, despite a significant drop in violence in the past year.

Blast in Sadr City Kills 2

BAGHDAD — Two people were killed and 20 wounded Sunday when a bomb exploded in Sadr City, a poor Shiite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said.

The bomb had been placed between two blast walls. It detonated when traffic was passing, and most of the casualties were shoppers at a nearby market.

Another bomb exploded in an adjacent neighborhood, wounding two people.

In the northern city of Mosul, which has still been wracked by violence while much of the rest of Iraq has calmed, a civilian and an Iraqi soldier were killed in separate attacks.

And in southern Iraq, an American soldier was killed by a bomb, the military said.

Campbell Robertson, Mohamed Hussein and Sahar S. Gabriel contributed reporting.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/world/middleeast/16baghdad.html?_r=2&ref=middleeast