Four years after being burned and looted, Iraq's National Library and Archive came under siege again, this time from armed Iraqi security forces that stormed the building two days ago, according to the library's director.
Saad Eskander, who has run the library since 2003, said a group of armed Iraqi troops rushed the archive at gunpoint, smashing windows and doors and threatening staff and library guards.
The director pleaded with the troops to refrain from harming the library's document collection, which includes some of the most historic documents in the Arab world.
The troops held positions in the building for two days before leaving late Thursday, according to Eskander, who said he now fears the archive will be targeted by extremists who routinely attack Iraqi forces here.
"The entire archive is in jeopardy," Eskander said today.
An Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman would not comment on the incident, but said it is not uncommon for American and Iraqi forces to temporarily commandeer houses and buildings for use as rest stops or lookout posts during military operations.
But Eskander said the Iraqi National Library and Archives should be exempt from such activities because it is a repository for the national heritage. And though he feared the soldiers could steal something, he acknowledged that the library's holdings had not suffered damage during the occupation.
Defending Shiite Pilgrimage
The soldiers said they were occupying the three-story building, which sits on the east bank of the Tigris, in order to defend Shiite worshippers heading to the shrine of Khadimiya, about 15 miles away, according to Eskander.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites marched to the gold-domed mosque in harsh heat and sun Thursday in a pilgrimage of devotion to an eighth century saint. Only scattered strikes by Sunni insurgents marred the event, which was held amid tight security to avoid the attacks that had occurred during past gatherings.
The soldiers positioned themselves on the roof of the library and dismantled the building's main gate and smashed doors and windows inside the main building, Eskander said. He's appealing for troops to keep the institution's books and archives out of the fight, warning that recent security moves have put one of the nation's most important cultural facilities at risk.
"We are a peaceful institution," he said. "We should not have to be in a position to defend ourselves here."
Historic Documents and Arabic Newspapers
Located across from the Ministry of Defense, the Iraqi National Library and Archive housed about 12 million documents before the 2003 American-led invasion, according to Jeff Spurr of Harvard University's Fine Arts Library. Spurr who authored a 2005 report on the condition of Iraqi academic libraries.
In addition to housing rare books and manuscripts, the building is thought to hold the largest collection of Arabic newspapers in the world, according to Spurr's report. The archive housed documents from the period of the Hashmenite monarchy (1920-1958) and the Turkish Ottoman period (1534-1918) as well as documents from the Republican period after 1958 to recent times.
Shortly before the 2003 invasion, staff members and Shiite clerics removed nearly 40 percent of the book collection and some of the documents for safekeeping, according to Eskander. Clerics also welded shut a steel door to one of the collections, and it remained safe.
After the invasion looters pillaged and burned the library during a three-day rampage, stealing hundreds of rare, centuries-old Islamic documents and texts, including a 16th century treatise by the ancient Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina. Military and national security records were torched, apparently to erase evidence, military officials said at the time. Fire, smoke and water damaged much of the remaining texts.
Now, more than four years later, Eskander and his staff of about 400 are still struggling to preserve the fragments of Iraq's ancient heritage.
An ethnic Kurd born in Baghdad, Eskander was among a close-knit group of Iraqi expatriates who streamed into Baghdad to help rebuild after the U.S. invasion. By then, thousands of antiquities had been looted from the National Museum and archaeological sites in a nation with 11 centuries of history.
"For the Iraqi people, there are few places more important than the archive," he said. "We need to keep it safe from the daily violence."
Elsewhere in Iraq, a car bomb struck a market in a Kurdish area in the northern city of Kirkuk this morning, killing at least eight people and wounding dozens, according to police there. The attack in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that has seen a recent rise in ethnic tensions, occurred while the capital remained relatively calm under a driving ban aimed at preventing such attacks during a major Shiite pilgrimage.
Meantime, south of Baghdad this morning, the U.S. military said a helicopter was forced down, leaving two soldiers injured. The helicopter was en route to support a planned mission when it made the forced landing in Youssifiyah, according to the military here.
The cause was not immediately clear from initial ground reports but was being investigated, a military statement said. Two soldiers sustained nonlife-threatening injuries, according to the statement.