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Ancient city seriously damaged by invasion

THE ancient city of Babylon was one of the major casualties of the conflict in Iraq, experts said yesterday.

Iraq's United States-led invaders inflicted serious damage, driving heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through one of the world's greatest archaeological sites, said experts for UNESCO.

"The use of Babylon as a military base was a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site," said a report which the United Nations cultural agency presented in Paris on Thursday.

UNESCO officials stressed that the damage didn't begin with the US military's arrival nor fully end after it left. Archaeologists took away some of Babylon's finest treasures in the 19th century, Saddam Hussein embellished the site with his own structures, and looters returned when the Americans handed the site back to the Iraqis 21 months after the March 2003 invasion.

Now Babylon is the object of a turf war between newly empowered Iraqi officials. At national level, Iraq's state antiquities office, focused on conservation, is up against officials of the province surrounding Babylon who want to attract tourists. They have already provoked concern by leveling a section of the site to create a picnic area.

UNESCO aims to make the 4,000-year-old city fit for the coveted title of World Heritage site, and will work to enforce international conventions on the protection of historic sites "so that what happened to Babylon can't ever happen again," said Francoise Riviere, the agency's undersecretary general for culture.

Archaeologist John Curtis of the British Museum, who inspected the site after it was returned to Iraqi control, said it was too soon to assess the cost of restoring and fully protecting the site.


Several initiatives to save Babylon have been announced in recent years, but have made little headway. Now, with the decline of violence in Iraq, hopes are pinned on a two-year, US$700,000 project financed by the US State Department to develop a program aimed at balancing tourism and archaeology at Babylon.

Much of the damage to the site, 100 kilometers south of Baghdad, is man-made.

The report said steel stakes were driven into ancient walls, which included fragments with inscriptions from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who is credited with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World.


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