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Why Iraq Needs a Cultural Surge

July 4, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IraqIslamic StateISISDaeshWarMosul

Why Iraq Needs a Cultural Surge

Iraq needs a new surge—one that is focused on the reconstruction of the country's cultural heritage.

The new surge should integrate the activities of three distinct U.S. actors: academia and nonprofits, government and the private sector.

U.S. civil society is moving first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is providing Iraqi curators with training and equipment for documenting antiquities in Iraqi museums. The University of Delaware and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are working on conservation projects in northern Iraq. The Smithsonian is initiating a program to train local antiquities staffers in “first aid”—Salih’s term—for devastated sites like Nimrud.

When this was announced in March, Mark Taplin, the acting assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the U.S. State Department, noted that “time and again, we have seen how collaboration in cultural heritage protection and preservation fosters dialogue and understanding within societies under stress.”

Diplomacy is the second element. The U.S. State Department can help ensure that Iraq’s politicians deliver on the federalism promised in their constitution. The 2008 Provincial Powers Act should be implemented, so that local communities here may begin to re-grow their ancient roots with less fear of inefficiency and chauvinism from Baghdad. Archaeologists, scholars and curators headed in both directions need help with visas, with the Iraqi side needing more support under State’s existing International Visitors Leadership Program. The cultural affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, bringing U.S. figures from the arts and academia to Iraq, should make the Mosul area a priority. The World Monuments Fund’s Future of Babylon Project, strongly supported by the U.S. State Department and some of America’s biggest private non-profits, including the Mellon Estate and the Annenberg Foundation, has done much in southern Iraq. This should be replicated on a larger scale in the far more politically urgent northwest.

USAID, with cultural projects worldwide, should shift resources here, to the true front-of-frontlines of the security interests of the American people. The Nineveh Plain meets two of the six criteria (“exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition . . . which is living or which has disappeared” and “tangibly associated with events or living traditions . . . of outstanding universal significance”) that are sufficient for qualification for cultural UNESCO World Heritage status. The United States and allies, given the vital national-security interests at stake here, should be pushing hard for this.

U.S. diplomacy must also exert pressure on Lebanon and Turkey, the two principal conduits for looted Iraqi antiquities—and the Gulf countries where the loot is bought—to stop this illegal trade. Meanwhile our Baghdad embassy is the largest on earth. Given that Nineveh was the first Iraqi province for ISIS to enter, and will soon be the last for it to leave, a small State/USAID team working on coordination and branding of the Nineveh Province cultural heritage surge will have a strong multiplier effect. Critically, the United States has the influence in Iraq to ensure that the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage never again rests in sectarian hands.

The third leg of the new surge strategy is Corporate USA. Many of America’s largest companies see the value of a growing market with thirty million consumers, and most are members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Iraq. The local Pepsi operator’s new facility outside Baghdad is the largest bottling plant in the Middle East. Additionally, Boeing and General Electric have signed some of their largest contracts anywhere, ever, in Iraq over the last few years. Bellying up once more to Iraq’s epic oil trough, American business needs nonsectarian, national, long-term ways to be seen as giving back.

ExxonMobil, which has a $50 billion contract in the south near Basra, operates legal but controversial fields in the Kurdish north—a constitutionally unhelpful position best mitigated via conspicuous support for unifying institutions. Last year Britain’s BP earned kudos by restoring the Basra Museum. The Mosul Museum is a wreck today, but, according to Salih, only about 15 percent of its best items have been looted or destroyed. It would be a perfect place for ExxonMobil to start.

Bartle Bull sits on the Visiting Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. His next book is a history of Iraq. He is a founder of NGP, Iraq’s leading merchant bank.

Image: A man reacts near the coffin of a member of Iraqi security forces, who was killed during clashes in Mosul, at his funeral in Najaf, Iraq June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani