For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Hussein Al-alak – UK

It can only be described as astonishing, the fact that to explain away the failure of the US/UK occupation of Iraq, some people have sunk to a new depth and sought to exonerate themselves by placing the burden of responsibility upon the shoulders of Gertrude Bell.
It is often said, that people can talk bad words of the dead because they are not here to defend themselves but placing the blame upon Bell, who died in the 1920‘s, for the disasters imposed upon Iraq by the Labour Government and their allies in 2003, is nothing more than an act of cowardice, in the efforts to cover up their own war crimes.
On many occasions, I have heard people claim that the disasters created since 2003, are a direct result of the “lines in the sand” drawn up by Bell, who in the early part of the twentieth century travelled and settled in Mesopotamia and after the First World War helped the then British occupiers create the borders of modern day Iraq, along with being the founder of the Baghdad National Museum.
In January 2005, Rory McCarthy described the destruction caused by the occupation in Babylon, “a city renowned for its beauty and its splendour 1,000 years before Europe built anything comparable, (Babylon) was chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq”.

John Curtis of the British Museum proclaimed in 2004 "It is regrettable that a military camp of this size should have been established on one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain."

The article, which was published by the Guardian, included a witness statement by a worker for the British Museum, who having visited Babylon after the invasion described how: “a 2,600-year-old brick pavement” had been “crushed by military vehicles” and “archaeological fragments were left scattered across the site.”

Other damage which had been caused included areas being covered in “gravel brought in from outside, compacted and sometimes chemically treated to provide helipads, car parks, accommodation and storage areas.” Lord Redesdale, the head of Britain’s all-party parliamentary archaeological group stated, “What the American forces are doing is not only damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it’s actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world.”

According to Donny George, who was director of antiquities in Baghdad before leaving the country in Aug 2006, recently explained that before the invasion, "American archaeologists gave the military the co-ordinates for thousands of archaeological sites. So they knew where they were, they had the names of the sites, everything. The damage could have been avoided."

Anger has also remained towards the desecration to the 1,200-year-old minaret of Samara, which was damaged by mortar fire and has since suffered further acts of vandalism along with the destruction of the bronze bust of Jaffar al-Mansour in 2005, which was “reduced to rubble by a roadside bomb“. The occupation also sought to eradicate Iraq from its history, when they destroyed the memorial to Michel Aflaq in 2003, “the father” of Pan-Arab Nationalism and one of the founders of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.
In the article “Iraq’s Year Zero”, Felicity Arbuthnot explained how one Iraqi blogger pleaded for international solidarity in defence of Iraq’s historical treasures, by asserting that the Supreme Committee for de-Baathification had ordered the destruction of the turquoise Shaheed monument to the rivers of tears and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.

The Unknown Soldier was completed in 1959, the year after the revolution which brought Abdul Kareem Qassim to power and toppled the British imposed royal family. The Unknown Soldier was created in homage to all those, who over the centuries: ‘fell in defence of the country’s dignity and pride.’

But what the invasion also created was a growth in the sales of stolen artefacts, where according to the State University of New York, “Private letters, contracts, works of literature, and records of institutions can be found in the buildings where they were created” but have since been uprooted by fortune hunters and sold into private collections, which according to some sources have estimated that over 16,000 items have disappeared since the start of the occupation, with only half having been returned.
On August 1st 2005, an auction had ended on E-Bay, which had for sale a Sumerian stone statue of a seated male, which dated back to 2450 BC. The statue, according the seller was located in the USA and it sold for $3,726.00 to a buyer who also resided in America. The seller informed potential customers that other “rare and extraordinary” items from Iraq have sold for as much as $12, 000 in auction.

Other ancient artefacts that were up for grabs in 2005, included a 1762 coloured engraved map of Babylonia and Palestine, an 1800 BC old Babylonian clay tablet, a 1800 BC Babylonian Plaque, Sumerian coins dated back to 3000 BC, a 3000 BC Babylonian Turquoise Gem pendant and an Old Babylonian Cuneiform Tablet which dated back to around 2100-2000 BC.

Whilst stealing is even considered to be a crime in democracies as great as Britain and the US, the contradictions here include the fact that only two years before this auction ended, that US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2003, that anyone who was either possessing or dealing in stolen artefacts: “may be prosecuted under Iraqi law and under the United States National Stolen Property Act”.

But the creativity which was used to develop and explain Iraq’s history is also under attack, as a direct result in the growth of religious fundamentalism, which was brought to Iraq by the British and Americans. In May 2008, the Observer published an article which described how "culture was encouraged under Saddam, but not anymore” and that artists, who have traditionally acted as the conduits in developing Iraqi history into a contemporary form are also being “cleansed“ from Iraq, with "Cinemas, art galleries, theatres, and concert halls being destroyed in grenade and mortar attacks".
Shortly before her death in in 1926, Gertrude Bell gave one last promise to the people of the East and stated, “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again”, wise words that do not echo from either Congress or Parliament but were said over eighty years ago from a woman who has been described as the “uncrowned queen of Iraq” and the “Daughter of the Desert”.
In 2006, one journalist for Reuters braved a war zone to visit the British cemetery in Baghdad and the grave of Gertrude Bell, where he was escorted to the graveside and described how “The cemetery gate groaned” on their entrance and he was lead “along rows of broken tombs”, each damaged by age and war. "There she is," said Ali Mansur the grave keeper and looking at his guest he then pointed at the name: "I take care of her now. But nobody visits!"

– Hussein Al-alak is affiliated with the Iraq Solidarity Campaign. He contributed this article to

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out