Lawrence Rothfield


On his book The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

Cover Interview of May 10, 2009

A close-up

One of the most poignant moments in The Rape of Mesopotamia comes when John Limbert, a diplomat and former Iranian hostage, was ordered to Baghdad by Colin Powell in the aftermath of the museum’s looting.  Limbert had been appointed by Gen. Garner just a month or two before the war (remember, Garner’s postwar reconstruction organization was set up by the Bush administration only 8 weeks before the invasion).  Garner had told Limbert then that he would be responsible for dealing with Iraq’s cultural ministries once the war ended.  All he had to do was to make sure the ministries stayed in place and the Iraqis got paid—we would be gone in 8-10 weeks.  No one knew the names of the Iraqi officials Limbert was supposedly going to oversee; in fact, no one even knew where in Baghdad the Ministry of Culture was located. Figure 8 from the book: Smashed display case showing the base of the Vase of Warka, which was stolen and later recovered in pieces.  (Photo courtesy of Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, archaeologist-journalist.)

Before he could find out the answer to these questions, Limbert was shipped off to Kuwait, where he was isolated, along with the rest of Garner’s people, on a far corner of a military base.  He remained there until finally, several weeks after the disaster, he got word to go to Baghdad to give a press conference at the museum reassuring the world that America was responding to the disaster.  His driver did not have the museum on his map either, and pulled up to ask for directions.  Glancing out the window at one of the many trashed government buildings, he read the name on its front: “Ministry of Culture.”  “It had been picked to the bone by the looters to a degree I’ve never seen—not a stick of furniture, not a piece of wire, not a pipe remained,” Limbert told me.