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Report: Babylon damaged by allied forces

Iraq's ministry of culture said the ancient city of Babylon would remain closed while experts assessed the damage to the historical site allegedly caused by the presence of U.S. and Polish forces.
/ Source: Reuters

Babylon — home to one of the seven wonders of the world — will remain closed until experts determine how much damage foreign forces had done to the site, Iraq's culture minister said on Monday.

A British Museum report published at the weekend said U.S. and Polish troops had damaged the ancient city, fabled home of the Hanging Gardens, by setting up a military base among the ruins in April 2003 after the invasion of Iraq.

"We want to know the full facts about Babylon's condition," Culture Minister Mofeed al-Jazaeri told a news conference.

"Babylon will stay closed until an international team is formed to determine the damage, document it and recommend what should be done to restore the city."

The Americans occupied the base for five months before handing it over to a Polish-led division, which moved out at the weekend after about 16 months there.

Poles defend presenceEarlier on Monday, Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said that contrary to the British Museum report, the presence of foreign troops in Babylon had saved it.

"If it wasn't for the Americans, Babylon would have been looted like all other museums in Iraq ... and we would now be buying back Babylon artifacts on bazaars and markets," he said.

Szmajdzinski told public radio Jedynka local authorities and archaeologists were consulted over all decisions affecting ancient sites at the base.

"Surely mistakes were made at the beginning, but nobody knows what Babylon was like before the Americans took over. Since arriving, we have carried out full documentation of the site," he said.

The Polish Culture Ministry will soon issue a 500-page report on Babylon, he added.

Report: Vehicles crushed ancient pavementsThe British Museum report said U.S. and Polish military vehicles had crushed 2,600-year-old pavements in the city.

Archaeological fragments were used to fill sandbags, it said.

"Babylon is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world and the damage caused by the military camp is a further blow for the cultural heritage of Iraq," John Curtis, keeper of the museum's Ancient and Near East department, said in the report.

Curtis, invited to visit Babylon by Iraqi antiquities experts, said he had found cracks and gaps made by people who had apparently tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the city's Ishtar Gate.

Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens, was the capital of Babylonia, which existed from about 1800 to 600 BC.

Major archaeological work was carried out at Babylon in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Saddam Hussein reconstructed parts of the site.