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U.S.: We didn't anticipate looting

Looters ransacked the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad.
Looters ransacked the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad.

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Looting of Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad prompts criticism of U.S. forces.
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DOHA, Qatar (CNN) -- Senior U.S. military officials have admitted Iraqi museums were plundered during a "void in security" and that they failed to anticipate Iraq's cultural riches would be looted by its own people.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Tuesday that forces entering Baghdad were involved in "very intense combat," and in removing the regime and conducting military operations, a "vacuum" was created.

"I don't think anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the Iraqi people. And indeed it happened in some places" including the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, he told reporters at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

He said that while "it may be after the fact" it remained important to restore institutions and retrieve as many items as possible.

Brooks said the coalition was hopeful that stolen items could be recovered, saying the items may not have been taken out of the country or gone on the black market.

"The riches of the Iraqi population are of interest to the world," he said. "We have work under way with the Iraqi population to get these things back."

Britain's Defense Ministry said British troops were not deployed in Baghdad but said U.S. forces were in a difficult position during "the interim period."

"Fighting is continuing and the Americans are still suffering casualties so the U.S. must deploy their forces as best they can," an MOD spokesman told CNN.

"The U.S. have a relatively small number of forces in Baghdad for the size of the city but they are now beginning to exert more control and are working with Iraqi police to try to minimize lawlessness."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday the United States will work to track down objects looted from Iraq's museums and help restore damaged pieces.

Powell's comments came on the heels of criticism of the Bush administration for not doing more to stop looters from ransacking the National Museum of Iraq.

The museum is home to one of the world's most extensive collections of artifacts dating back to the Mesopotamian era and "the seat of world civilization."

In an interview with CNN, a leading academic in Britain said Tuesday that U.S. and British authorities were aware of the possibility that museums throughout Iraq could be looted and damaged during warfare and "action should have been taken" to avert the pillaging.

Robert Springborg said that "proper authorities were duly informed" by art historians, archaeologists and other scholars about the "possibility of this occurrence." These includes the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which urged protection of the country's cultural treasures.

He said they were informed that occupying powers under the Geneva Conventions must protect cultural properties.

Powell vowed to try to retrieve Iraqi museum pieces looted during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Powell vowed to try to retrieve Iraqi museum pieces looted during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

It is not for lack of "knowledge that this occurred," said Springborg, director of the London Middle East Institute in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The ransacking of the National Museum of Iraq, in particular, speaks of a "profound breakdown" in communications between authorities in Washington and soldiers in the field or "something inexplicable." He said the museum is about one of the five greatest in the world.

Springborg said there was some structural damage to museums during the fighting and the looting took place "after the guns had fallen more or less silent."

He said the looting was done by two kinds of people -- the very poor and those who were "well-informed" about the cultural treasures who went into "vaults themselves to find particular objects."

The National Museum of Iraq "had been closed during much of the 1990s, and as with many Iraqi institutions, its operations were cloaked in secrecy" under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, The New York Times reported.

Reporters were shown scenes of the devastation during a tour of the museum Tuesday.

They saw signs of professional theft -- such as the existence of glass-cutters and the lifting of a 7,000-year-old bronze bust, weighing hundreds of kilograms that officials say no normal looter would take.

"I fear we're going to lose much of the world's patrimony," Springborg said, referring particularly to the National Museum of Iraq.

-- CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott and Correspondent Jim Clancy contributed to this report

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