April 19, 2003 -- It was the most important museum, housing the most important artifacts, in one of the richest archaeological regions in the world.
Archaeologists say civilization began in Iraq — in a region known as Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. This is where cities, writing, agriculture, social traditions and art all began. And in the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, people could view artifacts from all of these developments. There were ancient scripts on clay tablets, primitive plows, even one of the first wheels.
Now they are gone — or at least an untold number of them, from prehistoric tools to 4,000-year-old pottery, to Islamic art — stolen by gangs of thieves or damaged by looters.
Heartbroken Over History
Scholars around the world warned the Pentagon of the museum's significance. Now, they are angry and heartbroken.
"I thought we made the case enough with the military that the museum was going to be the No.1 protected site in Iraq," said McGuire Gibson, an archeologist at the University of Chicago. "And I had been part of a group that had worked up a series of locations for over 5,000 sites."
Gibson said the losses go beyond the Iraq National Museum's own holdings to include artifacts brought in from other parts of the country. Some Iraqi curators believed the artifacts would be safest in Baghdad.
"The fact there … were soldiers about 100 yards away while the looting was taking place for two days was shocking and was just indescribable and maddening," said Gibson, who is president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
The reverberations are worldwide. Three members of a White House cultural committee resigned Thursday out of disappointment that the United States failed to protect Iraq's historical treasures.
And Irving Finkle, a curator with the British museum, said he was "devastated."
"It was like being hit in the stomach with one of those iron bars. I could not believe in this day and age, such a thing would happen," he said.
Gus Van Beek, curator of old world archeology at the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, said he nearly cried.
"My goodness, we have nothing compared to what they have," he said. "They have huge text — huge pictures and stone of battles that were fought. They have gold artifacts, silver artifacts, beautiful daggers and other aspects of warfare. And jewelry — jewels abounded."
Rumsfeld: Reports Exaggerated
Resentment escalated when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested last week at a news conference that the reports of looting around the city were exaggerated.
"The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over. And it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you see it 20 times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases?" Rumsfeld told reporters. "Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"
But a few days later, while not admitting any mistakes, Rumsfeld said the U.S. government would do what it could to repair the damage.
"The United States is concerned about the museum in Baghdad. And the president and decretary of state and I have all talked about it. And we are in the process of offering rewards for people who will bring things back or assist us in finding where those things might be," he said.
The response is now under way. FBI Director Robert Mueller announced Thursday that FBI agents in Baghdad would assist in the effort to recover stolen valuables. And on today, Interpol, the international police organization, announced it was sending a special team to Iraq to help track down the pillaged treasures.
In Paris, scholars met under the auspices of the United Nations to begin cataloging the losses and any efforts to sell the goods. Sources have told ABCNEWS that because Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in selling on the black market before the war, museum staffers may not have complete knowledge of the collection.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy reports from the Pentagon that U.S. officials likely wish they had paid more attention to things like protecting the museum. But, he says, U.S. officials had geared the war plan primarily toward speed. By finishing the war as soon as possible, officials hoped to keep collateral damage to a minimum.
That is cold comfort to scholars, including many Americans, who remain outraged that their own government did not do more.
That sentiment was behind the resignation of three of nine members of a presidential advisory board. Their resignations were largely symbolic, since their terms were ending soon anyway. But the three chose to protest what one called a preventable tragedy.
"There was much information available to the administration and specifically to the Pentagon from all of the antiquities experts in this country about the need to protect that museum and the archaeological sites. And somehow it didn't happen," said Martin Sullivan, former chair of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee, who stepped down Thursday.
Some measure of stability is returning to Baghdad. The military is protecting the museum and officials have said that some very valuable holdings were hidden from looters and remain untouched. But to those who dedicated their lives to studying the birthplace of Western civilization, the loss of even the smallest clay tablet is something to mourn.
"They can't be replaced," said Van Beek. "As I think with all sciences, we go through and we think we have learned all that there is to know about something. But then, by George, all of a sudden, a new aspect of technology comes up and we learn more about it. And that leads us to, still other issues … So [that's why] there is no point in time, when an object is no longer valuable."
ABCNEWS' Michel Martin contributed to this report.