Dutch overseeing southern Iraqi province of al-Muthanna help Bedouin family guard the Sumerian site

The Americans did not list protection of Uruk as necessary when they handed over administration to the Netherlands


The Dutch mission currently administering the southern Iraqi province of al-Muthanna has delivered a report to the Ministry of Defence of the Netherlands. Although the report, submitted on 7 October, is not available to the press, it is expected to include recommendations for the protection of the Sumerian site of Uruk which is now under Dutch control. Any proposals for the guarding of Uruk will presumably have to be justified by military arguments for the Ministry of Defence to consider them.

The Netherlands took over military responsibility for the province of al-Muthanna from the US on 1 August. Part of the Dutch mission includes specialists from a unique unit known as CIMIC (Civil Military Cooperation).

CIMIC is a NATO project, launched in 1997, which allows for the “militarisation” of civilian specialists by armed forces. Only the Netherlands has actually created a corps of militarised specialists under this programme and CIMIC officers are now the only non-military professionals authorised to work in Iraq.

One of the five areas for which CIMIC is deployed is cultural affairs and because the territory now controlled by the Netherlands includes the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, CIMIC officers surveyed the site in August to make recommendations to the Ministry of Defence.

The site, which was continuously inhabited from the fifth millennium BC to the third century AD, includes the earliest known monumental architectural complex, the earliest urban agglomeration, and is the place where the earliest written samples have been discovered.

Until the Dutch CIMIC officers arrived at Uruk for their brief assessment visit, the site had been guarded only by a local Bedouin family. They deserve great credit for the fact that Uruk appears not to have been plundered and they have been specifically praised for their work by McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago.

Before the CIMIC officials left, they were able to supplement the Bedouins’s efforts by setting up a paper-thin, non-committal, temporary line of outside support which calls for local police forces to patrol the site when they can and for Dutch Military Police also to patrol the site occasionally.

Before the war, Uruk was managed by the Iraq Department of Antiquities through a field office in the provincial capital of as-Samawah, led by an official named Toufiq Abed Mohammed. Although his staff levels and budget declined drastically during the years of the UN sanctions on Iraq (1990-2003), before the latest conflict, he still had a handful of guards in service.

When the Americans occupied the province, this structure wavered from one day to the next. The 2,500 American troops controlling the province of al-Muthanna from March until August undoubtedly had more pressing tasks than the preservation of Uruk. Yet when they handed the province over to the Dutch, they left a long list of tasks and responsibilities for CIMIC officials to undertake that did not include the protection of Uruk.

Nonetheless, the Dutch included two cultural specialists in the eight-man CIMIC specialist team it sent to southern Iraq in the summer.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joris Kila, Network Manager for Cultural Affairs, trained in art history and archaeology, and Major Rudolf de Jong, a specialist in Arabic, especially Bedouin dialects, were members of the team.

Once they got to as-Samawah, they discovered that Toufiq Abed Mohammed had not abandoned his post, and was available to help with the protection of archaeological sites in the province. In the short time available to them, Lt-Col. Kila and Major de Jong were limited to making arrangements for the protection of Uruk, only one, albeit the most important, of more than 100 sites in the province.

The Bedouins they encountered explained that Uruk (now called Warka) belonged to them, the at-Tobe clan, by virtue of an understanding with Bedouins of other tribes, who ruled over other parts of al-Muthanna. They said they wanted nothing more than to guard the site against plundering, but their power to do so was limited by lack of water and transport. Since the CIMIC mission was only for assessment purposes, it could not offer more than partial material support.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, the chief of the CIMIC Network Team for Cultural Affairs, Lieutenant-Colonel Edmond C.A. Fokker van Crayestein, was at pains to insist that the function of his team should not be confused with that of a cultural non-governmental organisation (NGO) or with that of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which now exercises ultimate command over Iraq.

Such bodies, if they could (as NGOs presently cannot) or desired (as the CPA does not) would be able to create programmes focussed on the protection of cultural heritage. The CIMIC mission in Iraq is to execute quick-impact, high-visibility actions in the service of force protection.

It now remains to be seen whether the Dutch Ministry of Defence will do what the CPA has hitherto failed to do and implement effective measures to protect sites in Southern Iraq from looting.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dutch help Bedouins guard the Sumerian site of Uruk of the southern Iraqi province of al-Muthanna to the Netherlands'