News this Week

Science  01 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5633, pp. 574

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    A Low-Stress Scheme for Overhauling NIH's Structure

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    No one will be shocked to learn that a group of experts thinks U.S. biomedical research could be managed more efficiently. But even its modest recommendations this week for streamlining the $27 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) could send tremors through its Bethesda, Maryland, campus. The review panel finds, for example, that some of NIH's 27 institutes should be merged into others—including the genome institute, given that its main job is done. The report* also calls for more multi-institute initiatives at NIH and limits on the terms of directors.

    The authors don't propose a sweeping reorganization, however, because “we had a better idea for meeting the challenges,” says panel chair Harold Shapiro, a bioethicist and former president of Princeton University. “While it doesn't have the impact of throwing a grenade at something, the report is in our view more effective” this way. The panel also weighs in on a few hot-button political issues, warning, for example, that a push by the Department of Health and Human Services to take over some NIH functions could be damaging.

    The study was requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which in its 2001 report wanted NIH to ask the National Academy of Sciences whether NIH's structure is “optimally configured for the scientific needs of the 21st century.” In 2001, after stepping down as NIH director, Harold Varmus called for a leaner management: five institutes organized by disease. At the panel's first public meeting, however, experts noted that patient advocacy groups would resist closing the institutes they champion (Science, 9 August 2002, p. 917).

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    The Shapiro panel agrees that political forces preclude “widespread consolidation” at NIH. Its structure has resulted from “complex evolving social and political negotiations” and would require legislation to redo. The panel “favors” two mergers, however. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) should be combined with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) because they both study addictions and the diseases are similar, the report says. And because the human genome sequence was completed in April 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) could be folded into the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), where the project originated. NIH should also merge several clinical programs across institutes, the report says. And it proposes ending the special status of the National Cancer Institute, which now reports to the president.

    Before closing any institutes, however, Congress should require that the NIH director “initiate a public process” to consider scientific arguments and public views. The report suggests involving an ad hoc committee to consult with advocates and examine scientific needs—including pleas for new institutes.

    NIH's effectiveness could be increased in other ways. Congress should give the NIH director more discretion and money for programs that cut across institutes, the panel concludes. It recommends that 5% of NIH's overall budget go to these trans-NIH initiatives, ramping up to 10% or more over 4 to 5 years. (NIH Director Elias Zerhouni is developing a “road map” to do just that, but his funds to carry it out are limited, the report notes.) The director's office should also emulate the Department of Defense and create a program to quickly review and launch “high-risk, exceptionally innovative research projects offering high potential payoff,” in some cases bypassing standard peer review.

    The panelists also think NIH could benefit from more turnover in leadership. It recommends annual performance reviews for institute directors and a term limit of 5 years. Similarly, the presidentially appointed NIH director should serve a 6-year term, as does the National Science Foundation director. Terms could be renewed just once.


    NIH's clinical center should be folded into a coordinated plan for clinical studies, a new report says.


    Other recommendations touch on controversial directives issued during the Bush Administration (Science, 11 July, p. 148). The perception that politics is influencing the selection of advisory committees' members “is of current concern to the scientific and health advocacy communities,” the report says. It says panelists should be chosen “solely” based on their scientific or clinical expertise or commitment regarding an issue. Efforts to consolidate management functions and contract out science-related jobs should be done only after careful study shows that such moves will not undermine research.

    A Senate staffer calls the report “extremely helpful” and notes that many steps could be implemented by appropriations committees “fairly quickly.” But some observers were not impressed. “There are a lot of good ideas, but they never really took on the issue of how NIH would be ideally configured. Otherwise, there will be tremendous resistance to these fusions,” says Varmus, who is now chief of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. NHGRI Director Francis Collins says it's “not surprising” that the panel suggests merging some institutes, but he agrees that “thoughtful public discussion” should take place first. At NIH headquarters, officials are reviewing the report and will seek input “from a large range of constituents,” says NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington. He says Zerhouni's announcement last week of a new, select NIH governing council of 10 institute and center directors is an “independent” although “related” effort to streamline decision-making and make “a strong organization stronger.”

    • *Enhancing the Vitality of the National Institutes of Health: Organizational Change to Meet New Challenges, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, prepublication copy:


    New Climate Science Plan Garners Split Opinions

    1. David Malakoff

    When the Bush Administration released a long-awaited climate change research plan last year, most reviewers gave it a failing grade. Last week, the Administration tried again, unveiling a revised version. This time, the report card was decidedly better, although still mixed. Some researchers say the 360-page document is a vast improvement and should sharpen the U.S. government's $1.7 billion climate science program. But critics charge that the road map covers little new ground and is designed to allow the White House to delay taking action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

    “I might quibble with some of the specifics, but they've made a serious effort to grapple with the issues,” says climate impacts scholar William Clark of Harvard University. But Representative Tom Udall (D-CO) has a different take: “Considering its history on climate change, the Bush Administration's current push for more basic research is suspect … [and is] only a stalling tactic,” he says.

    Go study.

    James Mahoney is a lead author of a new climate research plan, which some applaud and others call a recipe for delay.


    The new plan ( has its roots in the Administration's controversial 2001 decision to back away from international agreements to limit carbon emissions in order to slow global warming. Instead, the White House said it would reorganize and reenergize the government's climate science programs and develop technologies—such as hydrogen-powered cars—that might reduce carbon emissions over the long haul. But last year's draft plan drew pointed criticism even from the National Research Council, which said it lacked “most of the basic elements of a strategic plan,” such as clear goals, products, and timelines (Science, 7 March, p. 1494). Administration officials invited suggestions for improvements, and hundreds of scientists and environmentalists responded with nearly 1000 pages of comments.

    “We made a good-faith effort to address everyone's concerns,” Department of Energy Undersecretary Bob Card said at the revised plan's 24 July unveiling at the Department of Commerce. Overall, the report spells out five overarching goals (see box) for the 13 government agencies involved in climate research. Each goal is accompanied by dozens of specific research targets and timetables for more than 20 white papers on hot topics. Within 2 years, for instance, the government vows to deliver a report on how to reconcile perplexing differences in lower atmosphere temperature data produced by space-and ground-based instruments and another tome summarizing past climate change in the Arctic and at high latitudes. Synthesis reports on abrupt climate change, ways to improve projections of climate extremes, and climate-caused ecosystem changes are all due within 4 years.

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    Department of Commerce Undersecretary James Mahoney, one of the plan's lead authors, says the deadlines are designed to ensure public accountability and inform policy debates with the most current information. But he emphasized the gap between understanding climate change and deciding what to do about it. “We don't look to the scientists to recommend policy choices; we want them to lay out what we know,” he says.

    The plan doesn't go into budget details but assumes that U.S. spending on climate science will remain at least stable. In fact, it may increase: The White House is already moving to redirect funds to accelerate four high-priority research areas. Over the next 2 years, about $100 million will be added to efforts to quantify the climate impact of atmospheric aerosols (tiny particles such as soot and dust), to deploy buoys to monitor ocean conditions, and to overhaul climate models and estimates of carbon sources and sinks. Insiders, however, predict that substantially more money—at least $250 million a year—will be needed to begin tackling other challenges, such as building the faster computers that some scientists say they need to reduce the uncertainty of climate forecasting models.

    Critics, meanwhile, say the plan overemphasizes the uncertainty surrounding climate science. In particular, they are irked by its spotlight on the “natural variability” of Earth's climate. “That's code for ‘Warming is natural—it's not us,’” charges one congressional aide. Others ask whether the plan will divert resources into rehashing conclusions already reached by other bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and they wonder if the White House can really mold the 13 agencies into a united front.

    Mahoney predicts that critics will have ample opportunity to pinpoint problems, promising an “open and transparent” program that will be reviewed by the National Academies. Clark says it won't take long for outsiders to decide whether the plan is producing action. “Within 2 years,” he says, “it should be unambiguously clear whether this Administration has the political will to realize the scientific potential of this valuable and far-reaching effort.”


    Visiting German Profs Could Face Jail

    1. Gretchen Vogel*
    1. With reporting by Xavier Bosch in Barcelona.

    BERLIN—Working with human embryonic stem (ES) cells is tricky business. The finicky cells need round-the-clock care and don't always behave as expected. But for German university professors it might also be risky business: Conducting research with newly derived human ES cell lines could land them in prison even if the work is done outside Germany, warns the DFG, Germany's main science funding agency.

    ES cells are prized by researchers for their ability to become any cell type in the body—a talent scientists hope to exploit to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. The cells have stirred controversy, though, because they are derived from early human embryos. A German law on the books since 1990 bans any research that harms an embryo, so deriving new cell lines here is prohibited. However, under the country's year-old stem cell law, scientists whose projects are approved by an ethics board may import and work with lines derived before 1 January 2002. Anyone caught breaking either law could face up to 3 years in jail.

    But the stem cell law was unclear about whether researchers could be prosecuted for participating in forbidden research in foreign labs. (Many European countries have less restrictive laws. The latest to issue regulations is the Spanish government, which last week gave a green light to research on embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatments that have been frozen for more than 5 years.) Early interpretations suggested that a researcher in Germany who oversees a project abroad to derive or work with new cell lines could incur penalties. To better advise its grantees, the DFG in September asked a team of law scholars to clarify the situation.


    Their study, released on 16 July, paints a mixed picture. German researchers abroad who are paid by a non-German employer are not bound by the law, the study concludes. And German researchers in the private sector are free to review or advise on foreign projects that would be verboten in Germany.

    But the scholars had a special warning for university researchers. Because German professors and research assistants are government employees, they are subject to a law stipulating that public officials adhere to German regulations anywhere in the world. That means a university researcher could land in court—and in jail—for working in a lab where newly derived stem cell lines are used, says Bonn lawyer Bernd Müssig, an adviser to the DFG on this issue. To avoid prosecution, professors would need to take an official leave of absence during any such stint abroad.

    It's unclear whether employees of Germany's nonuniversity research outfits—such as the Max Planck institutes or the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg—count as public officials under the law. Such a distinction would probably be determined only in court, Müssig says. He advises any researcher at a state-supported institute to take a leave of absence rather than test the long arm of German stem cell law.


    Reformers Aim to Shake Up British System

    1. Keri Page*
    1. Keri Page is a freelance writer in Cambridge, U.K.

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—A group of British forensics experts is hoping to build support for an overhaul of U.K. forensic science. The centerpiece of the effort is the creation of an independent scientific institute that would provide advice and casework for police and defense lawyers alike. The reformists face a tough task, however, in convincing colleagues that the evidence they have amassed proves that the system is failing.

    The case for reforms was laid out at a meeting here last month that was in part a memorial to one of Britain's best-known forensic scientists, Zakaria Erzinçlioglu, a forensic entomologist at the University of Cambridge who died after a heart attack last December. Erzinçlioglu, who testified in more than 500 murder or suspicious-death cases, had been a leading proponent of reforms. His widow Sharon, a research coordinator at the U.K. Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, has taken up her husband's crusade.

    The reformers' main complaint stems from changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1989, at the height of a campaign to put many government operations on a fee-for-service basis. Until then, the U.K.'s Home Office funded forensic labs, which the police could consult freely. But the Thatcher reforms turned the Forensic Science Service (FSS) into an agency that charges a fee for its services; a typical rate is £110 per hour for crime scene work. Police can also consult independent practitioners who charge similar fees.

    £110 per hour.

    Zakaria Erzinçlioglu, who died last year, assailed the “marketplace approach” to forensic science.


    Critics claim that this system is flawed. “The marketplace approach to forensic science … is wholly out of place in the context of justice,” Zakaria Erzinçlioglu argued in his 2001 book, Murder, Maggots, and Men. One concern is that the fee system may be encouraging cash-strapped police squads to cut back on forensic analyses. “Certainly there are cases where not everything that should have been done has been done,” says Andrew Stephens of Formedecon Ltd., an independent forensic outfit in Spennymoor, U.K. On the other hand, he says, the fee system has reduced requests for irrelevant or redundant work. Prior to the 1989 reform, Stephens contends, “there was a tendency to overuse and abuse” FSS.

    More worrisome to some critics is what they see as a lack of accreditation for the field. Anyone can “wake up and declare themselves a forensic scientist,” says forensic archaeologist Corinne Duhig of Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge. The result, says Henry Disney, an entomologist at the University of Cambridge, is that scientists can “make judgments outside their area of expertise.”

    Steps are being taken to address this problem. A new organization, the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners, requires suitable qualifications, references, and casework assessments from applicants and can discipline those who break its code of conduct. It's “very hard to guarantee integrity,” says council chair Evelyn Ebsworth, but “at least we have a way of dealing with people who lack it.” However, the independent body has little authority: Lawyers and police are free to call upon nonaccredited practitioners, and forensic experts are not obliged to register.

    Sharon Erzinçlioglu argues that forensic science needs “an independent institute which could carry out research and do casework free of charge, making the results available to [those on] both sides of a case.” She is heading a new committee and raising funds to get the Solon Institute, named after a Greek sage (638-558 B.C.) renowned for fair-mindedness, up and running. “It is a superb idea,” says Disney. Although he welcomes contributions to forensic science, David Reardon, general manager at FSS's Huntingdon branch, would prefer to see an institution with a broader mandate. “It needs to be a multidisciplinary group to cover the whole criminal justice system,” he says. Solon would have no formal link with FSS.

    Solon's backers admit that they have a long road ahead to make the institute a reality. A virtual Solon will start out with a Web presence and annual conferences in brick-and-mortar venues. It may be a modest beginning, says Sharon Erzinçlioglu, but at least it will keep her husband's dream alive.


    U.S., Italy Plan Joint Research Effort

    1. Chris Berrie*
    1. Chris Berrie is a writer in Fossacesia, Italy.

    ROME—Italy's Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) have signed an agreement to cooperate on research covering a wide range of health topics, from cancer to women's health to HIV/AIDS. The pact grew out of closer links between the two governments in recent years. A delegation from the United States headed by House appropriations committee chair Bill Young (R-FL) and NIH Director Elias Zerhouni sealed the deal in Rome on 28 July. According to the letter of intent, the project will also emphasize work that involves “developing countries and economies in transition,” aiming to reduce global disparities in health.

    Italy's minister of health, Girolamo Sirchia, has agreed to commit about P10 million to this effort in the first year, according to Enrico Garaci, president of ISS in Rome. Garaci said that the work will go forward on “two parallel tracks”: ISS will manage several health initiatives, and the health ministry will finance projects on “bioterrorism, rare diseases, and the pharmacogenomics of tumors” in accord with a separate ministerial agreement signed in April. Zerhouni declined to specify how much money the U.S. side will contribute, saying only that funds will come from NIH's intramural program. Although the format of the agreement is unusual, Zerhouni stressed that proposals will be chosen for funding through the NIH and ISS international peer-review processes.

    This week, a scientific delegation from ISS left Rome to consult with experts at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, about their joint cancer research portfolio. Teams of Italian scientists from outside ISS also hope to participate in the project; the official announcement indicates that the competition will also be open to groups working on projects related to these ISS interests. The details should be made public later this year. Italian scientists say they hope that this high-profile launch will be followed by a period of expanded international collaboration.


    Quantum Dots Chemically Wired for Spintronics

    1. Robert F. Service

    The wizards of condensed-matter physics are getting restless. Now that they have conquered the world with electronics, the dark art of manipulating the charge of electrons, they yearn to harness a subtler attribute of electrons: their magnetic orientation, or spin. Researchers have long suspected that nanometer-sized specks of semiconductors and metals, called quantum dots, would make ideal building blocks for “spintronic” devices, because their small size allows them to retain magnetic information for long periods of time. But spin doctors have had a hard time shuttling spin-based information from dot to dot, a “must” for any type of quantum dot-based computing. Now researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), have hurdled that obstacle and may be poised to make additional leaps.

    As reported online in Science this week (, chemist Min Ouyang and physicist David Awschalom report a simple scheme in which they coated a surface with successive layers of quantum dots, each wired to others above and below. Then, using a pair of ultrashort-pulse lasers, the researchers watched electron spins hop between dots. Moreover, they were startled to find that the process works more efficiently at room temperature than at close to absolute zero; most previous spintronic devices worked only in ultrafrigid conditions.

    “This is very significant work,” says Jeremy Levy, a physicist and spintronics expert at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Levy says the simple, flexible method for wiring dots together should open the door for other groups to create and test a kaleidoscopic range of new quantum dot assemblies. That ability, Levy and others say, could lead to breakthroughs in solar cells, molecular electronics, sensors, light-emitting displays, and other areas. “It's clear there will be other people using this approach, modifying it, and taking it in new directions,” Levy says.


    Lasers reveal that spins that start out in large linked quantum dots (graph, lower left) first jump and inhabit both dots simultaneously (two peaks) before settling in the smaller quantum dots.


    Connecting the dots wasn't easy, Awschalom says. Starting with commercially available quantum dots made from semiconducting alloys of cadmium and selenium, he and Ouyang tested hundreds of different ways to build linker molecules around a six-carbon ring called a benzene group. Atoms in benzene rings keep only a loose grip on their electrons, letting them roam freely in the vicinity of neighboring molecules; the UCSB pair suspected that this free-ranging motion would help electrons travel from one quantum dot to another. On either end of the rings, the researchers tacked on sulfur-containing thiol groups, which form strong covalent bonds to cadmium atoms.

    To assemble the dots in extended networks, Ouyang and Awschalom took a type of glass surface known as fused silica and capped it with a layer of thiol groups. They then dipped the glass into a solution containing a suspension of 3.4-nanometer quantum dots, which bound to the thiols. Next, they dunked the glass in a bath of their bridging molecules, which linked to the quantum dots. Then came a bath in a solution containing larger, 7-nanometer quantum dots, which bound to the free arm of the bridges. The researchers then repeated steps to add the molecular linkers and quantum dots in order to build up more layers on their materials.

    To test their assemblies, the UCSB researchers zapped their dots with ultrashort flashes of two types of laser light: a red frequency that only the larger dots could absorb and a green frequency that only the smaller dots could absorb. The red light was circularly polarized so that the photons would corkscrew as they traveled, nudging the magnetic orientations of electrons they encountered. If the linker molecules were doing their jobs, those stimulated electron spins would move between dots much as electrical charges move through a wire. To see whether that was happening, the researchers tried zapping the assembly with just the green laser. The small quantum dots absorbed most of the light. When Ouyang and Awschalom fired the red laser before the green beam, however, the small dots absorbed markedly less green light—an indication that the spins excited in the large dots had quickly hopped over the molecular bridge to the small dots, Awschalom says.

    The big surprise, however, was that the spin-hopping picked up considerably as the researchers increased the temperature. Practical spintronic devices have been stalled for years because even modest amounts of heat tend to scramble electron spins, wiping out any information they contain. The UCSB team's coupled quantum dots, however, buck the trend: They transfer spins at about 12% efficiency near absolute zero but at 20% efficiency at room temperature. Awschalom and others speculate that “thawing” the molecular bridges lets them flop around into shapes that favor spin transfer. Whatever the cause, Levy says, the finding raises hopes of creating spintronic devices that work at room temperature, an advance that could revolutionize the field of quantum computing.


    European Union Plans for Its Own CDC

    1. Giselle Weiss*
    1. Giselle Weiss is a writer in Allschwil, Switzerland.

    Global health threats such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and West Nile virus have given a booster shot to a proposal to create a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). In its final session before adjourning for the summer, the European Commission (EC) backed the plan, which must now be approved by the European Parliament. The center is intended to coordinate more effectively the responses of the 15 national public health systems to emerging threats from communicable diseases. “We find ourselves using 19th century instruments to deal with 21st century threats,” EChealth commissioner David Byrne, who spearheaded the initiative, told reporters after the meeting.

    The idea for such a center has been debated long and hard, but until recently most officials favored a virtual network of networks as opposed to a physical center. In the past 2 years, however, the anthrax scare and SARS drove home the importance of speed in dealing with public health threats. “This center needs an address, a head, experts,” says Gilles Brücker, head of InVS, a French public health institute.

    Until the 1990s, the European Union left public health entirely in the hands of national agencies. In 1998, the European Parliament and Council of Ministers created the European Communicable Diseases Network by linking 15 national disease surveillance networks. But standards vary from one country to another, and the EC lacks the scientific and technical support it needs to decide on an E.U.-wide response. During the SARS outbreak, for example, discussions between the national agencies and the EC were mediated through the network, which slowed the process considerably. When the E.U. admits 10 new member states next year, coordination will be even more complex, and the E.U. itself will then border onto nations such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, which have high levels of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

    SARS hits Europe?

    New global health threats demand a more coordinated response.


    Under the new proposal, the existing communicable disease network and early warning and response system would be transferred to the ECDC, although responsibility for action would remain with the member states, a point emphatically made by Byrne. The center would not employ a large number of disease experts but would have the ability to bring them in quickly when needed. It would provide technical assistance to member states—in the form of investigative teams, for instance—and act as a central hub for communications.

    The current plan calls for a staff of up to 100 people and initial funding of about $6.4 million for 2005, increasing to $33.4 million in 2007. That seems ludicrously small compared with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which boasts 8500 staff and a budget of $6.5 billion. But Ronald Haigh, head of the EC's communicable diseases unit, points out that most of the surveillance network and expertise already exists and is paid for by member states. CDC Director Julie Gerberding backs the plan: “CDC would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with an ECDC in hopes of building on international support for public health,” she said in a statement.

    Ideally, says Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, ECDC should be more active, funding national projects, helping remedy patchy national surveillance infrastructures, and building a global role for the E.U. in disease control. But to do that, he says, it will probably need more money than it is currently slated to receive.

    Byrne would like to see the center up and running by 2005, and he urged the European Parliament and Council of Ministers to translate the proposal into swift legislative action. “Communicable diseases do not respect national borders,” he said. The aim of ECDC is to ensure that “everyone [is] pulling in the same direction.”


    Mayhem in Mesopotamia

    1. Andrew Lawler

    From catastrophe to exaggeration, and from blunder to bluster, the looting of the Iraq Museum turned a scientific and cultural tragedy into a media event and political free-for-all

    BAGHDAD—Quietly and secretly, five people entered the empty and echoing halls of the shuttered Iraq Museum. Each chose a gallery and unlocked the glass cases with keys obtained from the nearby administrative offices. Then they removed the precious artifacts—everything from a 10,000-year-old carving of a bird head to delicate medieval Islamic pottery. A total of 8366 objects, worth untold millions of dollars on the black market, were hidden away. Once they had finished, they swore on the Koran not to reveal the location of the objects until well after the war was over.

    This clandestine caper was not carried out by thieves during the chaos that engulfed Baghdad in early April. Rather, it was a preemptive strike carried out by Ministry of Culture employees weeks before the U.S. invasion. The removal of these premier objects to an air-raid shelter was part of a concerted although flawed effort by the ministry to safeguard the complex from U.S. bombs or local looters. It wasn't until 6 July that the five revealed the whereabouts of the gallery objects to U.S. investigators, who found them intact.

    But what should have been a cause for celebration went virtually unnoticed by a world sated with coverage of the looting of the Iraq Museum. What began in April as an unprecedented international scandal—The New York Times reckoned it as “one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history”—had by July become the butt of jokes among conservative commentators, who derided the episode as an example of academic exaggeration, media gullibility, and Iraqi mendacity. The original count of 170,000 lost artifacts had plummeted to a figure that could be counted on “two hands and two feet,” sneered John Podhoretz in the New York Post. (In fact, more than 10,000 artifacts are still missing; see scorecard). The drama's conclusion has left Pentagon officials relieved, scholars defensive, and the public confused.

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    Behind the looting, the wanton destruction of administrative and storage areas, and the reappearance of hundreds of objects in Jordan, Italy, and the United States lies a fascinating tale of misunderstandings, mistakes, surprises, and bureaucratic infighting. The story stretches from the corridors of the Pentagon to the basement of the Iraq Museum itself. Science followed the trail from Washington, D.C., to London to Baghdad.

    Unlisted numbers

    When Cyrus the Great and, later, Alexander the Great captured ancient Mesopotamia's capital of Babylon—a short drive from today's Baghdad—both leaders were welcomed as foreign liberators. After throwing off oppressive tyrants, the new rulers immediately imposed order on the vast and wealthy city. “Green twigs were spread in front of him,” one scribe writes of the conquering Cyrus. “The state of peace was imposed upon the city.”


    Statues brought to Baghdad from regional museums for safekeeping lie in heaps.


    More than 2 millennia later, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair can only dream of such an outcome. Even as the two leaders assured the international community on 8 April that they were taking “every step possible” to protect Iraq's religious and cultural sites, looters began to take apart dozens of bank, university, library, hospital, and government buildings in the city. “We were still fighting our ass off as we went into Baghdad,” Lt. Gen. William Scott Wallace explained a month later when questioned by reporters. “And our first responsibility was to defeat the enemy forces.”

    The tanks and troops that poured into Baghdad in early April had orders to secure presidential palaces and sites of potential weapons of mass destruction, says U.S. Army Col. Rick Thomas, spokesperson for Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, who commanded the coalition land forces under U.S. Central Command. But there were no specific orders, he adds, to safeguard cultural, educational, or health care facilities—including the Iraq Museum.

    It wasn't supposed to be that way. Months before, outsiders had tried to light a fire under senior Pentagon officials in Washington (see timeline). On 24 January, archaeologists, collectors, and curators met with Joseph Collins, defense deputy assistant secretary for stability operations. They told him about the vulnerability of the museum, citing the Iraqi mobs that had stripped more than 4000 objects from regional museums in the bloody aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

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    A Fateful Week

    8 April:

    Bush and Blair pledge site protection; museum staff flee; battle commences.


    9 April:

    Baghdad falls to U.S. forces.

    10 April:

    Looters enter museum complex; Central Command pledges protection.

    11 April:

    Pillage continues; looters enter museum galleries and storerooms.

    12 April:

    Museum friends and staff members secure museum; media arrive and cite loss of 170,000 objects.

    13 April:

    Senior museum staff members return.

    14 April:

    White House holds teleconference; Powell issues statement assuring protection and recovery.

    16 April:

    U.S. tanks secure museum; American Schools of Oriental Research issues statement decrying looting.


    22 April:

    U.S. investigators arrive.

    29 April:

    Donny George cites 34 known objects missing; U.S. promises $2 million for museum-related recovery.


    1 June:

    Central Bank vault is opened.

    10 June:

    Conservative criticism mounts.

    3 July:

    Museum reopens for 2 hours.

    6 July:

    Iraqis reveal “secret place” location to U.S. officials.

    According to minutes of the meeting, Collins promised to look into issuing an order to ensure that U.S. troops did not loot or damage important archaeological and cultural sites. But he dropped the matter, Collins later told Science, after learning that U.S. troops were already operating under such orders, so no new one was issued. Ordering commanders to halt looting by Iraqis, he adds, was outside his bailiwick. “We are a policy shop,” Collins says. “We aren't in the business of guiding military operations.”

    Some defense officials did express concern. On 26 March, 2 weeks before troops arrived in Baghdad, the Pentagon's civilian office in charge of overseeing postwar Iraq drew up guidance for U.S. land forces to secure key Baghdad institutions “as soon as possible to prevent further damage, destruction, and/or pilferage.” First revealed by Paul Martin in the 20 April Washington Times, the document from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) is stamped “working draft.” But government officials confirm that it was conveyed to McKiernan's Kuwait office for implementation by the military.

    The Iraq Museum is ranked second on the list, on a par with the Abbasid Palace and behind only the Central Bank. “Baghdad contains one of the largest archaeological museums in the world,” the document states. “It contains literally thousands of priceless historical objects” covering “over 5000 years of recorded history and presents the fruits of 200 years of scientific investigation.” Presciently, it warned that the museum “will be a prime target for looters.” Although the document remarks that “it will be impossible to protect everything” in a country loaded with valuable sites, it argues that the museum, palace, and Ministry of Culture “should be safeguarded by the stationing of U.S. forces.”

    That message was reinforced in public comments by Maj. Christopher Varhola, an Army civil affairs officer, who told reporters on 5 April in Kuwait that military officials were worried about looting, “especially in the absence of law and order and the economic uncertainty that is inherent to any military operation of this magnitude.” He expressed special concern for the museum's “priceless material.” Still, no military order was issued.

    A last-minute plea by a U.S. senior officer to protect the museum fared no better. U.S. Central Command acknowledged the 10 April request by the officer, who prefers to remain anonymous, to move expeditiously to protect the museum. They wrote him that U.S. forces were on their way. But again, no order went out.

    Hole in one.

    U.S. tanks fired on Iraqi militia lodged in this museum arch, and they now guard the complex.


    By 14 April, the fate of the museum had become an issue for the White House and State Department. During a teleconference led by White House Office of Global Communications chief Tucker Eskew, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesperson Alistair Campbell warned that the looting “looks bad, is playing bad, and we need to protect [the museum],” one White House official recalls. But Eskew was not in the chain of command and was thus in no position to issue an order, and Central Command officials participating in the teleconference took no action. That morning, however, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell assured reporters that Central Command “has issued instructions to all troops inside Iraq to protect museums and antiquities throughout Iraq.” In reality, however, it would be 48 hours before any tanks showed up.

    Picture window

    The man finally charged with securing the museum was Jason Conroy of the 3rd Infantry Division. The 30-year-old Army captain was wary of the task; in recent days his four tanks and 16 soldiers “had taken heavy fire” from the walled compound and its vicinity.

    That firing began late in the morning of 8 April. By that time, most of the museum staff had fled, but Jaber Khalil, chair of the State Board of Antiquities, and Donny George, the board's research director, had decided to stay behind to protect the museum from looters. The pair were busy stockpiling food and water for a long siege when Khalil spotted Iraqi militia in track suits and tennis shoes jumping into the adjacent garden outside his office window. “We have to go, it is too dangerous to stay,” he told George. They escaped out the back door.

    Those militia, armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), were setting up positions on top of the large arch facing Museum Square, as well as on the roof of the museum library. Both spots offered a strategic view of a major intersection. The soldiers also used dugouts in the front lawn of the museum that George insists were built before the conflict to protect staff from air raids.

    Early in the battle, the M1A1 Abrams tank commanded by Sgt. 1st Class David Richard took out the position on the arch. “We thought they needed a picture window,” he says dryly. A trail of blood on the arch threshold testifies to the effectiveness of the 120-millimeter round. A second, 25- millimeter round was fired into a storeroom window in the rear of the museum, where U.S. investigators later found a sniper's nest. The room was entered from the inside without force.

    Bad rap?

    DOD's Joseph Collins says it wasn't his job to ensure that artifacts were protected from Iraqi looters.


    Conroy and Richard believe that the museum complex was a well-planned and well-fortified position that served as an arms and ammunition stockpile for Saddam's forces. As evidence, they point to the abandoned RPGs, AK-47s, and Iraqi military uniforms that littered the rear area of the museum, which is shared by a police station and a mosque. A small gate there—easily climbed—opens onto a busy market street, and the market arcade is riddled with small-arms fire, testament to intense fighting. “They were running across that street and firing at us,” Conroy says.

    However, an investigation by U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos into the looting found no evidence that Iraqi soldiers were present in the compound before 8 April. The sniper, speculates George, may have arrived later with the looters. Discarded Iraqi military uniforms were found in the administrative area.

    The battle raged until the 16th, Conroy says. “There were lulls,” he recalls, adding that large numbers of civilians did not begin to emerge until 14 April. But as early as 10 April crowds of looters began attacking the museum. They burst into the administrative areas, stealing air conditioners, chairs, tables, computers, cameras, and anything else of value, according to Mohsen Hassan, a 56-year-old archaeologist who lives on the museum grounds.

    Hassan remained inside his home in the rear of the compound during most of the fighting, but he says he tried to convince Richard to move his tank from the nearby intersection to the museum. Richard says he doesn't remember the encounter. “It was total chaos; people were shooting at you,” he says.

    There are persistent but unconfirmed rumors in the neighborhood that U.S. forces actually preceded looters into the museum and came out with boxes. Other rumors are that U.S. soldiers actively encouraged the museum looting and that American tanks chased away a crowd of looters on at least one occasion. But no U.S. officials or senior Iraqi museum staff confirm any of these scenarios.

    Media circus

    What is certain is that by the morning of the 12th, returning staff members and their friends had managed to secure the complex and hang a makeshift sign that claimed falsely that the museum was under the protection of U.S. forces. The first wave of media had also arrived to witness empty glass cases, chaotic storerooms, and angry and distraught employees and friends. One woman, identified as the museum's deputy director, was quoted by Reuters, Voice of America, and the BBC as saying that thieves “have looted or destroyed 170,000 objects of antiquity.”

    But the woman, Nabhal Amin, was actually a former assistant curator who no longer worked at the museum, according to Nawalla al-Mutawalli, the museum director. Amin had not been involved in the prewar preparations and had no current knowledge of the museum collection. She was able to reach the museum quickly because she lived nearby, and she spoke with authority to Western reporters.

    Back door.

    The University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson stands beside the poorly secured rear gate of the museum.


    The 170,000 figure actually refers to the number of items in a museum inventory. The total collection likely consists of nearly half a million individual objects—several beads, for example, can be counted as one inventory item. John Burns of The New York Times, who clambered with colleagues over the back gate of the museum on 12 April, says that archaeologist Hassan told him that some 50,000 objects were gone. The more cautious figure appeared in the first editions of the 13 April paper. But the final Sunday edition cited “at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.”

    Burns explains that he decided to use the larger number after talking with other reporters. “We had seen completely ransacked buildings, and when we got to the museum we were disposed to believe the worst,” he says. “We were tremendously distraught, and passion got the better of us.” Both versions of Burns's stories included the caveat that “a full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months.”

    That caveat, however, barely registered in the outcry that followed. Stunned Mesopotamian scholars, intimately familiar with the museum's collections of artifacts, research materials, and old excavation data, believed the initial media reports—and amplified their message. Archaeologist John Russell of Massachusetts College of Art in Boston says he received an average of 40 phone calls and 100 e-mails a day from the press for a week. On 16 April, the Boston-based American Schools of Oriental Research compared the museum looting to “the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors.” A headline in Britain's Independent summed up the accepted wisdom: “A Civilization Torn to Pieces.”

    Scholars say the comparisons were justified, based on the data they had. “It was a shock,” says Russell. “The reporting was so extreme that scholars' reactions were very strong.” But some have since had second thoughts. “Perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports,” says Piotr Michalowski, an Assyriologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

    Senior members of the Iraq Museum staff did exercise caution. On 13 April, Khalil and George returned to the museum after persuading U.S. Marines at the Palestine Hotel—who oversaw operations only on the other side of the Tigris—to send tanks. None appeared, however. A disconsolate George was quoted as saying, “It's gone, it's lost.” But he consistently told reporters that quantifying the loss would require a difficult and time-consuming inventory.


    Iraqi archaeologist Donny George (left) and Col. Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in New York, are unlikely partners in retrieving lost artifacts.


    At a 29 April closed meeting at the British Museum, George told experts that “we don't know what's lost” beyond a list of 34 specific gallery items. Important collections of manuscripts and cuneiform tablets were safe in bunkers, vaults, or the untouched parts of the museum's storerooms, he added. John Curtis, the British Museum archaeologist who had been one of the first foreign scholars on the scene, concurred with George's analysis. “Donny made it clear that things were not as bad as the first reports indicated,” says Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

    It wasn't long before the media focused on what seemed like a dramatic—and to some, suspicious—reduction in estimates of the number of stolen items. A team of U.S. investigators led by Bogdanos began arriving on 22 April to follow the artifact trail. Their efforts soon resulted in a drumbeat of news detailing major “finds” that appeared to mock the first media reports. “U.S. Says It Has Recovered Many Artifacts and Manuscripts in Iraq,” trumpeted The New York Times on 7 May. “Just 32 Prize Items Still Missing as Iraq's Treasures Flood Back,” wrote The Times of London on 15 June.

    Not surprisingly, most of the objects were simply being pulled from storage places outside the museum. The vast Dar Saddam manuscript collection, for example, was locked away in a bunker in western Baghdad before the war for safekeeping, and George himself took U.S. officers there shortly after the museum was secured. Museum staff also reminded American officers about the collection of gold and precious items from Nimrud that had been stored in the Central Bank since 1991—a fact long known by foreign archaeologists (Science, 6 July 2001, p. 42). The waterlogged collection of gold jewelry was eventually retrieved from flooded vaults. Finally, a stream of people arrived at the museum and handed over hundreds of objects.

    Secrets and lies

    Pentagon officials consistently downplayed the museum disaster, privately dismissing the hubbub as a convenient liberal tool to criticize the war. A “bum rap” was how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded on 10 May to accusations that the military was responsible. But White House and State Department officials say they were angered and embarrassed by the event and its coverage.

    As the estimated number of lost items began to drop, however, Western commentators —mostly conservative supporters of the invasion—joined the fray. Influential columnists such as David Aaronovitch in Britain's Guardian (“Lost from the Baghdad Museum: Truth”) and Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post (“Hoaxes, Hype, and Humiliation”) accused the media of parroting false numbers from Iraqi officials whose motive was to magnify U.S. crimes. George came in for special drubbing. He was “the source of the lie,” wrote Krauthammer, adding that the media “bought their deceptions without an ounce of skepticism.”

    Ironically, George actually was excluded from the biggest museum secret of all: the preemptive move to transfer invaluable objects from the museum's galleries to a secure location. The closely held operation began at the end of February. Iraq's Minister of Culture appointed Muayyad Damerji—a former State Board chair and now a ministry adviser —to lead the effort. He was assisted by Al-Mutawalli, Khalil, and two others. “It took a week to 10 days,” recalls Al-Mutawalli. Damerji says similar precautions had been taken before the first Gulf War.

    Salute to royalty.

    U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer examines crown from ancient Assyrian queen at 3 July exhibition.


    The museum was closed, and the fragile items placed in a secret air-raid shelter built during the Iran-Iraq war. Damerji says he and his team feared that looters might get wind of the stash, so all five pledged to keep the operation secret until a new Iraqi government was in place. On 6 July, just days before the announcement of a council to govern Iraq, the museum staff revealed the location of the safeguarded items to the Americans. Bogdanos says all the material has been accounted for, but he also declines to name the location.

    Although they preserved thousands of objects, the rescue team members made some costly mistakes. They failed to move a host of important objects—notably a 5000-year-old vase—to the greater safety of the shelter or a storeroom. “We were afraid to move the Warka vase” because of its fragility, Damerji says. Objects such as an Akkadian copper statue base were deemed too heavy to transport.

    Looters had no such reservations. They took both objects, although the vase has since been returned in pieces. Other important artifacts were stored haphazardly, if at all. The famous 4000-year-old Ur harp—minus its gold bovine head, which was stored in the Central Bank—was found, damaged, on the floor of a trashed workroom.

    Some U.S. authorities, in tracing how the looting unfolded, suspect something more sinister than honest errors made in the haste of packing. They are still puzzling over how thieves and the sniper—without using force—opened a massive steel door leading to a ground-floor storeroom that contained thousands of recently excavated artifacts. The key to that steel door was kept in Al-Mutawalli's safe in her administrative office, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials; that safe, in turn, was opened by looters with a key. Some 2700 artifacts, most from recent excavations, along with many reproductions, were stolen from the ground-level storerooms, although about 2100 have since been recovered. The upstairs storeroom was largely undisturbed, save for the sniper's nest.

    Downstairs, looters performed another formidable feat. The back entrance to that basement storeroom, which consists of three large storage spaces, was sealed before the war with a concrete wall, which in turn was protected by a thick iron door located in an obscure passageway. The looters found the door and pried it open, smashed the wall, and descended into the cavernous space. They then made their way to one wall of the central chamber containing more than 100 plastic boxes full of cylinder seals, beads, and other small items, along with a row of cabinets with more cylinder seals and a huge collection of Roman, Greek, and Islamic coins.

    The robbers were clumsy and ill-prepared, however. Lacking flashlights, they lit small fires for illumination. And they dropped a large set of small keys to the cabinets before they had a chance to use them. “They were more like the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight,” says Steven Mocsary, a U.S. Customs official assigned to the museum. Their fumbling prevented the loss of one of the world's most important coin and seal collections, but they did make off with nearly 5000 seals stored in the boxes. (One fine-quality seal sold on the New York art market 2 years ago for $424,000.)

    How did the burglars know where to look, and how did they obtain the keys? “It was just by chance,” suggests Al-Mutawalli, a respected cuneiform scholar who has been with the museum since 1977 and has been director for 3 years. “They got lucky.” But George and Bogdanos believe there was no way that uninformed looters, on their own, could have made their way through dark corridors, iron doors, and a concrete wall to the right location. “Someone had inside information,” says Mocsary. But there is no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.

    Eager to put the controversy behind them, coalition officials temporarily reopened the Iraq Museum for a 2-hour media event on 3 July. Attended by U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer, the event featured a spectacular display of recovered Nimrud gold—hauled out of its bank vault across town just for the occasion. Iraqis don't begrudge what many academics see as a cynical propaganda ploy. “At least we can assure people that the objects weren't stolen or confiscated by Saddam and his family,” says Damerji.

    As the events of early April recede in time, few people seem eager to rehash them or extract any lessons learned. The Pentagon says it has no plans to revamp its policies on cultural heritage sites. Academics are still struggling to organize a concerted response to the crisis (see next story). And the media has moved on.

    The rare reflection comes from a politician who took heat from the media and scientists in the aftermath of the looting. “The easy answer is that nothing could have been done,” Tessa Jowell, the British Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, told a parliamentary committee on 8 July. But then she introduced a haunting note of self-doubt. “We'll all live for a long time with the question of whether more could have been done to protect these treasures.”


    State Board Hopes for Fresh Start

    1. Andrew Lawler

    BAGHDAD—The Iraq Museum and the State Board of Antiquities, which runs it, are getting a much-needed makeover. But the bigger challenge is to transform Iraqi archaeology into a modern research enterprise.

    Saddam Hussein's oil-rich government showered Iraq's archaeology program with money and attention during the 1970s and 1980s. But in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, government funding dried up, researchers fled, and most foreign scientists stayed away. Politics also grew more intrusive, as senior archaeologists and museum staff members increasingly were expected to join the Baath Party, attend weekly meetings, and beat the drum for the repressive regime. The result was a quiet crisis in Iraqi archaeology even before looters descended on the museum.

    “Thirteen years of sanctions affected us,” says museum director Nawalla al-Mutawalli. “We've fallen from the top ranks of museums.” The State Board of Antiquities, adds senior board official Rabia al-Qaisi, is eager to “become more technically up-to-date and scientifically current.” The first step in the process is an inventory of the storerooms, now more than half complete, notes Al-Mutawalli. In addition, donated computers and furniture now line the hallways, waiting to be installed.

    But reversing the decline will require more than new office equipment. A decade's advances in excavation, preservation, and curatorial techniques by the outside world are unknown inside Iraq, and policies long scorned in the West—such as paying archaeologists bonuses for finding artifacts—are deeply ingrained. There are also cultural issues to overcome. “There is no motivation for work, no sense of initiative,” says Lebanese archaeologist and journalist Joanne Farchahk, who recently spent time at the museum. “They wait for big government to tell them what to do.”

    New era.

    Iraq's Muayyad Damerji and Nawalla al-Mutawalli meet the press in London.


    On top of those problems, a cloud hangs over the museum's current management. A series of petitions has criticized Jaber Khalil, the board chair, and other senior managers for alleged corruption. Coalition officials say they see no basis for these complaints, and only one senior manager, a senior Baath Party member who served as Saddam's eyes and ears in the museum, has been forced from her position as head of excavations. Khalil—who is not a Baath Party member but who is related to Saddam's family—is in ill health and would like to retire or return to teaching at the University of Baghdad, museum officials add.

    Coalition partners and foreign researchers want to leave management of the board to Iraqis to avoid being labeled colonial interlopers. But Iraqi officials say the door is open to mutually beneficial cooperation. Muayyad Damerji, former State Board chief and now a Ministry of Culture adviser, urged archaeologists gathered last month in London to reopen their Baghdad institutes and hinted that they might be able to resume excavations as early as next spring. Donny George, research director, added that he hopes a streamlined bureaucracy will make it easier for outside scientists to gain the necessary approvals.


    Researchers Weigh In on Trading

    1. Andrew Lawler

    In the wake of the Iraq war, a battle pitting archaeologists and collectors is brewing on Capitol Hill over how far to go in restricting the antiquities market

    Many archaeologists are accustomed to lobbying foreign governments for permission to practice their profession. But the highly publicized crisis in Iraqi antiquities is giving them a chance to practice their political skills at home, too.

    U.S. archaeologists are pressing to rein in an antiquities market that they see as a growing threat to their databases. However, collectors, dealers, and curators say the sudden attention has gone to the archaeologists' heads and that the proposed changes are too drastic. The controversy promises to turn into a stiff fight this fall, when Congress considers two conflicting pieces of legislation.

    The United Nations excluded Iraqi antiquities when it lifted sanctions in May against the country. It is now up to each country to set its own rules. In the United States, H.R. 2009, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act, which was introduced by Representatives Phil English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA), would establish a permanent ban, whereas a measure proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) would limit it to 1 year, starting this fall.

    But the House version, which has the backing of archaeologists, goes one step further. It gives the president the power to bypass the Cultural Property Advisory Committee—a presidential panel that includes a mix of scientists, museum curators, and art dealers and collectors—in case of an emergency such as the one in Iraq. Currently, another country submits a formal request, which is reviewed by the committee before the U.S. Department of State can act. Without an Iraqi government, and with a congressional delay in confirming nominees, the committee has taken no action.

    Digging in.

    Ellen Herscher, left, and Jim Fitzpatrick are at odds over a House bill to restrict the antiquities trade.


    The House bill also would double the length of time of an emergency import ban—from 5 to 10 years—and increase the time such a decree could be extended, from 8 years to a decade. The bill would apply to any object more than a century old, compared with the current minimum of 250 years. “The Iraqi situation has brought to everyone's attention the danger to cultural resources in a war situation,” says Ellen Herscher, an independent archaeologist who is chair of the Archaeological Institute of America's legislation and policy committee. “The U.S. is the primary market for antiquities, and this bill gives us the legal tools to deter illicit trade.”

    But collectors, dealers, and curators think those changes go too far in altering the 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act, which set up the current system and was the result of painstaking compromise by all sides. They prefer Grassley's version. “I don't want to get rid of the established process for protecting cultural antiquities,” Grassley said in June as he introduced S. 1291.

    Jim Fitzpatrick, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., who represents dealers and collectors, says, “Archaeologists see the tragedy in Iraq as cover to make fundamental changes.” Although backing the ban, he adds that “the other issues have no urgency at all” and should not be rushed through. He would like Congress to hold hearings before considering any sweeping changes. Senate staff members say there are no plans to move on Grassley's bill until the House acts.

    Herscher argues that Grassley's 1-year deadline “isn't worth the paper it is printed on. This stuff would just go underground.” And she says that politicians should respond more forcefully to public concern about the antiquities market.

    Expecting a tough fight against opponents that she calls “well-organized and influential,” Herscher urges her colleagues to leave their excavation holes and enter the political trenches. “Many archaeologists have never engaged in any kind of political activity,” adds Patty Gerstenblith, a lawyer working with the Archaeological Institute of America. “They have to be willing to talk to lawyers and lobbyists and put their time and money into this.”


    Sites in Hinterland Present Ripe Targets for Looters

    1. Andrew Lawler

    With remote archaeological sites under little government control, looters are plundering —and posing a tough challenge to U.S. and Iraqi officials

    BAGHDAD—It is the invisible crisis. While tanks and troops now guard the Iraq Museum and a handful of legendary archaeological sites such as Babylon and Ur, dozens of ancient towns and cities scattered across the remote deserts of this country are being systematically destroyed by looters. “This may end up being a bigger disaster than the museum,” says Selma al-Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist who now works in Yemen.

    Iraq is chock-full of mounds built up over 10,000 years of human habitation, most of which have never been scientifically excavated. But that doesn't mean they have been ignored: The chaos of war has given looters a golden opportunity to dig for cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, jewelry, and other items that command high prices on the international antiquities market.

    Pietro Cordone, an Italian official in charge of Iraq's cultural heritage, saw extensive looting firsthand during a May helicopter survey of the south. Although Cordone has declined requests for comment, other coalition officials say they recently put together a list of 47 sites that should be protected and their coordinates. Even so, civil authorities cannot force the hand of the military, which has a limited number of troops and a long list of priorities.


    A U.S. soldier frisks an antiquities looter.


    Frustrated archaeologists have called on the U.S. military to be more aggressive. Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who recently visited southern Iraq, made headlines when she said at a London press conference that troops should fire on looters to discourage their illegal activities. That view is widely shared by many researchers. “We agree, we just don't say it publicly,” says one archaeologist.

    But others believe that a carrot should accompany the stick. During the late 1990s, when a sputtering economy triggered more looting, Iraqi archaeologists such as Donny George forged alliances with the local sheiks in the south, where the majority of remote mounds are located. The looters typically are members of tribes around the sites, and the sheiks—if they themselves were not directing illegal digs—were able to use their influence to crack down on the miscreants. In return, the chiefs bestowed jobs as guards and diggers on their clansmen. “This system needs to be elaborated upon,” says Muayyad Damerji, adviser to the Ministry of Culture.


    But such arrangements require secure conditions, a rare commodity in today's Iraq. “It's not time to go down there yet,” says George. “But by spring of next year, maybe we can settle this.” George thinks that coalition officials in the meantime should meet with a powerful Shiite leader in the southern part of the country to get the ball rolling. “He could issue a decree; he could do something.” But he adds that coalition officials are reluctant to increase the power of the mullahs.

    U.S. officials are considering hiring private guards throughout the country to discourage looting. Reviving the network of 1600 guards on the State Board of Antiquities staff might also help. But Al-Radi warns that paying people to work at remote sites will not necessarily solve the problem. “There is an old Arabic saying that the guard is the thief,” she says. A better solution, archaeologists agree, would be regular excavations that provide stable employment for the desperately rural poor in this ancient land. Until security improves, however, few scientists are likely to head off into the Iraqi hinterlands.