BAGHDAD – Iraq's restored National Museum reopened Monday with a red-carpet gala in the heart of Baghdad nearly six years after looters carried away priceless antiquities as American troops largely stood by in the chaos of the city's fall to U.S. forces.
The ransacking of the museum became a symbol for critics of Washington's post-invasion strategy and its inability to maintain order as Saddam Hussein's police and military unraveled.
But Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, chose to look ahead. He called the reopening another milestone in Baghdad's slow return to stability after years of bloodshed.
"It was a dark age that Iraq passed through," the prime minister said at a dedication ceremony after walking down a red carpet into the museum. "This spot of civilization has had its share of destruction."
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The museum — which holds artifacts from the Stone Age through the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods — will be open to the public starting Tuesday but only for organized tours at first, officials said.
"We have ended the black wind (of violence) and have started the reconstruction process," al-Maliki told hundreds of officials and guardians of Iraq's rich cultural heritage as Iraqi soldiers with red berets stood guard.
Once the home of one of the world's leading collections of artifacts, the museum fell victim to bands of armed thieves who rampaged through the capital after the Americans captured Baghdad in April 2003.
It was among many institutions looted across Iraq, including universities, hospitals and cultural offices. But the richness of the museum's collection — and its importance as the caretaker of Iraq's historical identity — led to an outcry around the world.
U.S. troops, the sole power in the city at the time, were intensely criticized for not protecting the treasures at the museum and other cultural institutions like the national library and the Saddam Art Center, a museum of modern Iraqi art.
When asked at the time why U.S. troops did not actively seek to stop the lawlessness, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said: "Stuff happens ... and it's untidy and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."
Others claimed the U.S. troops did not have a mandate to act from Washington.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said about 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum and that about 8,500 were later recovered.
Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a U.S. investigator who led the probe into the looting, said last year that trafficking of stolen Iraqi antiquities was helping finance Al Qaeda in Iraq as well as Shiite militias.
A number of countries in the region, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt, have returned stolen objects to Baghdad, a city which served as the scientific and literary hub of the Arab world in the 8th and 9th centuries.
Iraqi officials closed the museum several weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, fearing an attack on the city might embolden criminals to steal the artifacts. Some important artifacts were stored at secret locations away from the museum and were spared the looting.
Still, of the roughly 7,000 pieces still missing, about 40 to 50 are considered to be of great historical importance, according to the U.N. cultural body UNESCO.
The most valuable and unique pieces belonging to the collection, including two small winged bulls and statues from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods more than 2,000 years ago, were on display Monday. Others remained locked away.
Abdul-Zahra al-Talqani, the media director of Iraq's office of tourism and archaeology affairs, said it was more a matter of space than security because only eight of 23 halls have been renovated.
More artifacts will be put on display as other halls are opened, he said, adding that museum officials were waiting for more government funding.
Initially only organized tours for students and other groups will be allowed to enter but the doors will eventually open to individual visitors.
Al-Talqani said he was confident in the security measures taken to protect the museum, although he declined to be more specific.
"We expect no security problems and hope everything will run smoothly," he said.
Assyrian wall panels depicting human-headed winged bulls connected two halls. Other halls contained Islamic mosaics, a marble sun dial and glass cases displaying silver jewelry and daggers.
One was devoted to looted antiquities that had been recovered, including vases and pottery jars, some broken, as well as statues of small animals, necklaces and cylinders.
The museum's highly publicized reopening comes as the government is trying to promote public confidence in the drastic decline in violence in the capital and surrounding areas, though attacks continue and U.S. military officials warn that security gains remain fragile.
Iraq's Interior Ministry announced Monday the arrest of a Shiite police gang accused of killing the Sunni vice president's sister in 2006 as part of a string of kidnappings and slayings.
Spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the 12 people arrested were former employees of the ministry. The Interior Ministry has been accused of past infiltration by Shiite militias who perpetrated some of the worst sectarian violence.
The sister of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Maysoun al-Hashemi, died in a hail of gunfire on April 27, 2006 as she left her home in Baghdad.
Gunmen ambushed an Iraqi army checkpoint Monday in western Baghdad, killing three soldiers and wounding eight other people, according to police.
A roadside bombing apparently targeting a police patrol in central Baghdad killed at least two civilians and wounded six, said police and hospital officials.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.