BAGHDAD, 15 April 2003 — So yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then came the arsonists. It was the final chapter in the sack of Baghdad. The National Library and Archives — a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents including the old royal archives of Iraq — were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the Islamic Library of Qur’ans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was set ablaze. I saw the looters.
One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law from a boy who could have been no more than 10 years old. Amid the ashes of hundreds of years of Iraqi history, I found just one file blowing in the wind outside: Pages and pages of handwritten letters between the court of Sherif Hussein of Makkah — who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia — and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.
And the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for Ottoman troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all of them in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq’s written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Qur’anic library of the ministry, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased.
Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed? When I caught sight of the Qur’anic library burning — there were flames 100 feet high bursting from the windows — I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines’ civil affairs bureau, to report what I had seen. An officer shouted to a colleague that “this guy says some Biblical (sic) library is on fire.” I gave the map location, the precise name — in Arabic and English — of the fire, I said that the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene — and the flames were now shooting 200 feet into the air.
There was a time when the Arabs said that their books were written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries in Baghdad. In the National Archives were not just the Ottoman records of the caliphate, but even the dark years of the country’s modern history, hand-written accounts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, an entire library of Western newspapers — bound volumes of the Financial Times were lying on the pavement — and microfiche copies of Arabic newspapers going back to the early 1900s.