BAGHDAD, Iraq – The famed Iraq National Museum, home of extraordinary Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections and rare Islamic texts, sat empty Saturday — except for shattered glass display cases and cracked pottery bowls that littered the floor.
In an unchecked frenzy of cultural theft, looters who pillaged government buildings and businesses after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime also targeted the museum. Gone were irreplaceable archaeological treasures from the Cradle of Civilization.
Everything that could be carried out has disappeared from the museum — gold bowls and drinking cups, ritual masks worn in funerals, elaborately wrought headdresses, lyres studded with jewels — priceless craftsmanship from ancient Mesopotamia.
"This is the property of this nation and the treasure of 7,000 years of civilization. What does this country think it is doing?" asked Ali Mahmoud, a museum employee, futility and frustration in his voice.
Much of the looting occurred Thursday, according to a security guard who stood by helplessly as hoards broke into the museum with wheelbarrows and carts and stole priceless jewelry, clay tablets and manuscripts.
Left behind were row upon row of empty glass cases — some smashed up, others left intact — heaps of crumbled pottery and hunks of broken statues scattered across the exhibit floors.
Sensing its treasures could be in peril, museum curators secretly removed antiquities from their display cases before the war and placed them into storage vaults — but to no avail. The doors of the vaults were opened or smashed, and everything was taken, museum workers said. That lead one museum employee to suspect that others familiar with the museum may have participated in the theft.
"The fact that the vaults were opened suggests that employees of the museum may have been involved," said the employee, who declined to be identified. "To ordinarily people, these are just stones. Only the educated know the value of these pieces."
Gordon Newby, a historian and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said the museum's most famous holding may have been tablets with Hammurabi's Code — one of mankind's earliest codes of law. It could not be determined whether the tablets were at the museum when the war broke out.
Other treasures believed to be housed at the museum — such as the Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600 B.C. — are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.
"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for our being able to understand the past," Newby said. The looting, he said, "is destroying the history of the very people that are there."
John Russell, a professor of art history and archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art, feared for the safety of the staff of Iraq's national antiquities department, also housed at the museum; for irreplacable records of every archaeological expedition in Iraq since the 1930s; for perhaps hundreds of thousands of artifacts from 10,000 years of civilization, both on display and in storage.
Among them, he said, was the copper head of an Akkadian king, at least 4,300 years old. Its eyes were gouged out, nose flattened, ears and beard cut off, apparently by subjects who took their revenge on his image — much the same way as Iraqis mutilated statues of Saddam.
"These are the foundational cornerstones of Western civilization," Russell said, and are literally priceless — which he said will not prevent them from finding a price on the black market.
Some of the gold artifacts may be melted down, but most pieces will find their way into the hands of private collectors, he said.
The chances of recovery are slim; regional museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War, and 4,000 pieces were lost.
"I understand three or four have been recovered," he said.
Koichiro Matsuura, head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, on Saturday urged American officials to send troops to protect what was left of the museum's collection, and said the military should step in to stop looting and destruction at other key archaeological sites and museums.
The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced deep concern about the looting. Jordan urged the United Nations to take steps to protect Iraq's historic sites, a "national treasure for the Iraqi people and an invaluable heritage for the Arab and Islamic worlds."
Some blamed the U.S. military, though coalition forces say they have taken great pains to avoid damage to cultural and historical sites.
A museum employee, reduced to tears after coming to the museum Saturday and finding her office and all administrative offices trashed by looters, said: "It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now." She refused to give her name.
The Americans knew that the museum was at risk and could have protected it, said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago who helped circulate a petition before the war, urging that care be taken to protect Iraqi antiquities.
"It was completely inexcusable and avoidable," she said.
The museum itself was battered. Its marble staircase was chipped, likely by looters using pushcarts or heavy slabs of wood to carry booty down from the second floor. The museum is in the Al-Salhiya neighborhood of Baghdad, with its back to a poor neighborhood.
Early Saturday, five armed men showed up at the gate: One was armed with a Kalashnikov, three carried pistols, one wielded an iron bar. The man with the assault rifle walked into the museum, accused journalists there of stealing artifacts and ordered them to leave.
He claimed to be there to protect the museum from plundering. One of the men said he was a member of the feared Fedayeen Saddam militia.
"You think Saddam is now gone, so you can do what you like," he raged.