After Looting, Burning, Iraqi Archive Makes Comeback

In the weeks after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the charred, partly gutted Iraqi National Library and Archive became a symbol of the chaos and lawlessness that swept through the capital.

During a three-day rampage, looters pillaged and burned the building, stealing hundreds of rare, centuries-old Islamic documents and texts. Fire, smoke and water damaged much of what remained.

Mounir Bouchenaki, the deputy director-general of the U.N. cultural body Unesco called it "a catastrophe for the cultural heritage of Iraq."

Now, on the brink of the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's death, and some four years since it was looted, the library's recovery is exceeding even the most optimistic predictions.

Windows once shattered by stray bullets have been replaced. Fresh coats of paint cover newly renovated walls, and dozens of new desktop computers line refurbished work spaces. The library employed about 90 people before the war. Today, 400 mostly young staffers have turned it into a hive of activity.

"After the burnings and chaos, no one was in here but the dogs and cats," said Saad Eskander, a Baghdad-born ethnic Kurd who has run the archive since 2003. "Today the library is better than before the war."

An infusion of critical help from foreign non-governmental organizations is playing a key role in getting the archive back on its feet:

More than 100 new-model computers were donated by Japanese and Italian NGO's, which installed high-speed Internet throughout the building.

A Czech Republic aid group contributed state-of-the-art digital microfilm machines and scanners, and paid to have Iraqi employees travel to Prague to learn how to use the equipment.

The British Library provided microfilm copies of thousands of rare books and microfiche copies of important Iraqi records.

An Italian outfit even donated furniture that matched the mid century motif of two-story building's interior architecture.

The archive is succeeding in other areas, too. Eskander has managed to keep sectarian divisions out of the building by fostering a sense of national pride among his young employees. Pictures of politicians and tribal leaders are banned from the building, as are deep discussions on religion or political policy.

Women, who typically held menial positions before the war, now head archive departments. Last month, the archive celebrated what Eskander called "women's day."

"We don't have a sectarian problems here," says Eskander, a thin, bespeckled man with graying short dark hair. "What makes a Shia or a Kurd or a Sunni is having something very special in common and that is a national library."

The archive's recovery comes as other important cultural institutions are still struggling. The National Museum of Iraq remains closed, despite a great push from political leaders here to reopen it. It's been shuttered since 2003 except for two brief openings for officials and other guests in late 2003 and earlier this month.

Looters stripped the museum of some 15,000 Mesopotamian artifacts in the days after Baghdad fell. It's considered one of the world's most important locations for artifacts from the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations. Though museum directors have managed to recover 4,000 missing pieces, they refused to set a date for reopening.

The museum's executive director, Amira Eidan, said restoration efforts are being slowed by insufficient financing and lack of proper security.

Man on a Mission

After the 2003 invasion, Eskander was among a small group of Iraqi expatriates who streamed into Baghdad to help rebuild. By then, archaeological sites in a nation with 11 centuries of history had already been raided by looters.

Eskander said gradual repairs in the weeks after the looting helped the archive become a haven for students and scholars in Baghdad. They flocked to its location on Mutanabi Street, the city's intellectual heart, which is filled with book sellers and book lovers.

Though he vowed to keep the doors of the archive open, Eskander has been forced to close it for short periods amid Iraq's deepening violence and chaos. It was shuttered last November after several staff members were killed and the building increasingly came under fire.

Five staff members were killed in violence in 2006. In March, a car bomb exploded on near the archive killing 26 people.

"The library is a symbol of hope," Eskander said. "Destroying it will divide our society even more. It's not just an Iraq, it's a cultural attack on us as well."

Eskander and other cultural curators here have been heartened by a lull in overall violence in Baghdad in recent months. Though scattered deadly attacks still occur, the U.S. military says the weekly number of attacks has fallen to the lowest level since January 2006.

Casualties suffered by Iraqi security forces are down 40 percent since the beginning of the troop reinforcement plan -- commonly known as "the surge."

Civilian fatalities in Baghdad are down 75 percent in recent months, the U.S. military says. Some areas of Baghdad are seeing the lowest levels of overall attacks since the spring and summer of 2005, according to Iraqi and U.S. military data.