Rallying to salvage one of the world's most treasured troves of antiquities, UNESCO and the British Museum announced Tuesday they would send experts to Iraq to restore museums and artifacts ransacked after the U.S.-led invasion.
The looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in recent days has dealt a harsh blow to the Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.
Much anger at the destruction has been directed at U.S. troops who stood by and watched it happen. On Tuesday, U.S. officials acknowledged they were surprised by the rampage and said troops were too occupied by combat to intervene when they first arrived in Baghdad.
"I don't think anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the people of Iraq," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at a U.S. Central Command briefing Tuesday in Qatar.
The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said its team would study the conditions of museums and historical sites, identify ways of restoring them and find potential donors.
UNESCO said the team would travel "when conditions permit." About 30 experts were to meet Thursday for an initial assessment at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
"The recent experience of UNESCO ... shows that culture can play a key role in the consolidation of the peace process," Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said in a statement.
In London, the British Museum said it would also send a team, and it called on the United Nations to ban the sale of antiquities looted from Iraq.
"Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq," said British Museum director Neil MacGregor.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government last week, Iraqi looters stole and smashed priceless archaeological treasures from Iraq's National Museum.
The museum holds items of incalculable cultural value, perhaps the most famous being the tablets with Hammurabi's Code — one of mankind's earliest codes of law. It could not be immediately determined whether the tablets were at the museum when the war broke out.
Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases and pilfered — or just destroyed — their contents. Among the missing treasures: The four millennia-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls and colossal statues, ancient manuscripts and bejeweled lyres.
The museum in the northern city of Mosul also was pillaged, and Baghdad's National Library — with one of the oldest surviving copies of the Quran — was set afire Monday.
On Tuesday, the library was a smoldering three-story shell, its floor covered with the ashes of books. Its collection included some irreplaceable, centuries-old Arabic manuscripts.
Nearby, the library of the Religious Affairs Ministry, home to invaluable religious texts, also was looted and gutted by fire.
Donny George, director of antiquities at Iraq's National Museum, told CNN that U.S. laxity allowed looters to come back repeatedly. He said he went to the Marine headquarters in Baghdad three days ago and waited for hours to talk with a colonel about security issues.
"That day he promised that he will send armored cars to protect what's left from the museum," George said. "Three days ago till now, nobody came."
News reporters said glass cutters were found at the museum, indicating professionals were involved in the looting.
UNESCO's Matsuura urged American and British forces to take immediate measures to guard Iraq's archaeological sites and cultural institutions.
He also called on several groups — countries bordering Iraq, customs officials, police and art dealers — to do all they could to block the trading of stolen antiquities.
The British Museum, which holds the greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq, has been criticized for failing to return antiquities taken from their homelands in the 18th and 19th centuries.