Read an ExcerptThieves of Baghdad One Marine's Passion to Recover the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures
By Matthew Bogdanos Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Copyright © 2006Matthew Bogdanos
All right reserved.
Chapter One In Medias Res
Men never know the good that was in their hands until they've lost it.-Sophocles
On May 2, 2003, I was working my way through Iraq's national museum in the heart of Baghdad, investigating the rampage and the looting that had taken place during the war. With me were other members of the multiservice, multiagency unit that I led, military trigger-pullers and analysts teamed up with law enforcement officers from a dozen other agencies.
As we passed through the museum's long, central corridor-the musty, poorly lit room that had just been on the cover of Newsweek-our guide was Dr. Nawala al-Mutwali, the museum's director. We stepped over rubble and shattered glass, cracked sarcophagi, and the broken heads of ancient statues. The large objects that had fared better were surrounded by sandbags or wrapped in foam-rubber padding.
While most people found Nawala to be dour and difficult, we had become friends. In fact, our affection for each other was so obvious that the team joked relentlessly about my carrying on some mad affair with this imposing and somewhat older woman.
After two weeks of laborious,room-by-room inspections, we were ready to examine the underground storage area, the first portion of the museum that was virgin territory, completely undisturbed since the looting. That meant our first clean crime scene and the possibility of a significant investigative breakthrough. We might even get something we had seen little of so far: evidence. On that day, we had a BBC film crew tagging along. They wanted the story, and I wanted to be able to use their footage to document our findings. Like everything else in a war zone, their presence was a quid pro quo, a horse trade.
The list of missing objects already read like a compilation of Mesopotamia's "greatest hits." There was the Sacred Vase of Warka, the world's oldest carved stone ritual vessel. There was the Mask of Warka, the first naturalistic sculpture of the human face. There was the gold bull's head that had adorned Queen Shub-Ad's Golden Harp of Ur, discovered in 1929 by a team that included Sir Leonard Woolley, Sir Max Mallowan, and Mallowan's future wife, Agatha Christie. There was the Bassetki Statue, one of the earliest known examples of the lost-wax technique of casting copper, as well as the Lioness-attacking-a-Nubian ivory, and the twin copper Ninhursag bulls. These pieces alone were a year's course in art history. They were all in one museum. And they were all gone.
We had repeatedly tried to open the heavy, steel doors that would lead us down into the basement. So had the looters-some of the doors bore sledgehammer marks. Others were covered over by heavy grates wrapped with the kind of cable locks we use in Manhattan so that motorcycles stay put. Much later, watching the BBC footage while back home, I noted how one of Nawala's AK-47-toting assistants showed up behind me with a set of keys. The museum had this curious arrangement of overlapping circles of security, born out of their even more curious system of centralized authority and interdepartmental animosities. Not only did staff from one department have no idea about the inventories or practices of other departments, no one person had the keys to every sector. None of the keys were ever marked, and this set was no exception. Nawala had to try every single one, and even then she could not find the key that would get us into the sanctum sanctorum of the underground storage room.
We took the difficulty as cause for optimism. Actually, given that this area held some of the museum's most highly valuable and most easily transportable objects, it was closer to elation. If we couldn't get in, chances are the bad guys hadn't either.
As we would later determine, there were four underground rooms in an L-shaped configuration, plus a fifth that had to be accessed through a different route. In the deepest, darkest corner were two rows of ordinary, unmarked lockers that would have fit right in at the gym where I'd learned to box. Only instead of sweaty workout clothes, these held the world's greatest collection of ancient gold and silver coins. In these same brown and beat-up lockers, in the same dark corner, was also the world's greatest collection of ancient cylinder seals, highly prized by collectors and, accordingly, highly prized by thieves. About the size of a piece of chalk, these intricately carved pieces of lapis lazuli, carnelian, or other stone had once been worn on a string around the neck by upscale citizens of ancient Mesopotamia. These were the people who'd invented writing, scratching wedge-shaped (cuneus forma in Latin; hence, cuneiform) symbols into soft clay with a stylus beginning about 5,500 years ago. As the final touch to any correspondence, they would use the seal the way my grandmother used a rolling pin to smooth out phyllo. The impression left in the soft clay by the inscribed seal was the distinctive "signature" of that individual.
Nawala, a descendant of these ancient and inventive people, was one tough lady-I had watched her break her toe just a few days earlier and not utter a sound. On that day, we had also been trying to open a locked door, one that was ten inches thick. When it finally gave, she could have jumped back out of the way, but in doing so she would have touched me-a violation of sharia, the religious law. So she stayed put, the heavy steel door raked across her toe, and she silently crumbled into herself, biting one of her thumbs.
In the hot glare of the BBC's cameras, Nawala was frustrated by the endless number of unmarked keys. I heard her mutter to herself, then she said, "There is the other way."
I glanced at my guys from ICE, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"It has been sealed off with bricks," she said. "So there is no way anyone could enter." I didn't know if it was the custom in Iraq, but my thought was, "knock on wood when you say that."
This back door Nawala told us about was at the bottom of a narrow stairwell, accessed from a landing just off a room displaying Roman antiquities from Hatra. Those are the ruins of an ancient commercial crossroads that you see in the opening scene from The Exorcist when a Mesopotamian demon escapes from an archaeological dig.
We went through the Assyrian and Babylonian galleries and entered the Hatran Gallery. All we noticed at first were some three-foot-high partitions in front of a doorway in the corner. Walking closer, we moved the partitions. The lower portion of the locked glass door was smashed, and behind that, down about knee level, the steel grate across the door had been bent with a crowbar.
Nawala threw up her hands, gasping out the Arabic equivalent of "Oh my God!" The small area beyond the glass door was like a broom closet beneath a stairway. In fact, the underside of the museum's main stairs passed overhead, ascending from right to left. But immediately inside the small alcove, to the right, was another, extremely narrow stairway going down to the basement. At the bottom of this narrow stairs, the metal door was wide-open, but-as we had come to expect by now-there were no signs that it had been forced open. We could see the cinder blocks that had been mortared into place behind this door to seal the actual opening itself. We could also see that two cinder blocks from the top row, and two from the second row had been pried loose and removed. At this point, we asked the BBC crew to stay behind and politely appropriated their equipment.
Steve Mocsary, a senior ICE agent on my team, picked up the big Ampex camera and started filming. His most immediate purpose, though, was to direct the TV lights into the cavernous area beyond the doorway, as Bud Rogers and I prepared to go over the wall.
Bud was also ICE, as well as former Army Special Forces. He had been on a classified operation in Romania when we'd first entered Iraq, but as soon as we decided to undertake the museum investigation, Steve told me Bud was the best in the business and requested permission to bring him in country. One phone call later, Bud was getting off a Blackhawk, and I learned quickly that Steve had not been exaggerating.
For his own part, Steve may have been a bit long in the tooth-this was certainly his last shot in the field before a desk job and then retirement-but he was no slouch. A veteran of UDT, the Navy's elite underwater demolition team, he was tough and seasoned, utterly unflappable, and he knew explosives.
The hole in the cinder blocks was big enough for only one of us to go through at a time. On the other side of the wall, the stairway continued on down. I went first, like a diver-head foremost, arms extended. I'd like to say that I landed in a perfect combat roll with catlike reflexes, peering into the unknown darkness, my 9 mm poised and ready to fell any evildoer with a double tap to center mass. In fact, I landed in a clump and scratched both elbows-but at least my pistol was ready.
Then Bud Rogers dropped down beside me.
In Iraq, every place at every moment is hotter than hell, but underground it was hotter than the hinges of hell, specifically, the hinges of Dante's eighth circle, the one he reserved for thieves and hypocrites to suffer together for eternity. The room was airless and, aside from the BBC camera's light shining over my head, pitch-dark. Steve maneuvered the beam so we could assess the situation before we moved. We could not be 100 percent certain that we were alone down here, and holding a flashlight in front of your body is like wearing a nice big target pinned to your chest.
I looked ahead and tried not to blink as the salty sweat trickled down, burning my eyes. Then I saw footprints in the dust making a beeline across the floor. These thieves had a clear idea of where they were going and, presumably, what they were after: the coins and the cylinder seals, some of which were worth $250,000 a pop. Given their size, anyone could carry off a million dollars' worth in a single fanny pack.
What I didn't know was whether they had reached their objective. But of more immediate concern, had they left any surprises for us? We had found rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, Iraqi uniforms, and assorted small arms scattered throughout the museum. This last corner of the basement would have been an excellent place to leave a parting gift wired with explosives.
As an investigator, I was thinking about that straight line in the dust. As a Marine, I was thinking about rods, cones, and night vision-in the dark you're supposed to look slightly off-center-and trigger pull. As a classical-history buff, passing sarcophagi and amphorae I was thinking, "Wow, this is like the catacombs."
Slowly, and with great care, we crept down the few remaining steps and followed the path of the footprints. The smell of damp clay was overpowering. We stayed just astride the beam of Steve's camera light, which showed the way ahead, but only directly ahead. We went as far as we could in that one direction, dust motes swirling above us like snowflakes. Then we turned around and retraced our steps.
I had dispatched a couple of other ICE guys-Claude Davenport, our computer whiz, and Bud Adada, one of three fluent Arabic speakers on the team-to wire up the basement to our generator outside. We needed to get the lights back on before we started exploring more broadly. Unfortunately, air-conditioning was not an option.
Once we were back to the sealed doorway on the stairs, Steve extended a meter-long pry bar through the small opening. It would have been much easier to break down the wall from the outside, but the steel bar was too long to maneuver in the narrow space. The guys who last passed this way had been better prepared. Somehow, they knew to bring a hammer and chisel.
Doing the best we could from the inside out, Bud and I took turns chipping away at the mortar holding those big, gray cinder blocks. It took us over an hour to loosen another seven or eight rows, removing enough blocks for the rest of the team, including Nawala to make it through. We generated buckets of sweat, as well as buckets of dust and rubble, sucking down water and struggling to breathe.
When the wall was about knee-high, Nawala climbed over. Her two assistants with the AK-47s seemed eager to tag along. One of them raced forward, but I put my hand on his chest and he stopped. He looked at me, I looked at him, and he backed down. But not out of fear. He was acknowledging the obvious: that I was in charge-for now. He was also letting me know that my authority did not extend beyond this moment. In that one look, we understood each other perfectly. In other circumstances, we would each go for the trigger, and I made a mental note never to turn my back on him.
"I had no idea," Nawala muttered to herself in Arabic as she followed on my heels. "No idea," she repeated in English, ostensibly for me.
We were doing it my way. In single file, stepping in the footprints already made. Even before we had passed through the first room, she had begun to hyperventilate. Her face was flushed, but not just from the heat. It was as if she had a child trapped down here, and she had to know if that child were dead or alive. It did not help that she was covered from head to toe, including the khimar that swathed her head.
The overhead lights were on now, and we could easily make out the footprints leading into the next room. We could also see that while everything in this storage area was filthy, dusty, dank, and cram-packed with pots and statuettes, it was also totally, and incongruously, undisturbed. Clearly, the people who had entered before us were not impulse shoppers.
We continued following the footprints, turned a corner, and then it was as if we had crossed paths with a tornado. The entire floor was strewn with what were, essentially, plastic fishing-tackle boxes. Some were upside down, some had been flung aside, and others had been smashed into the walls. It looked as if the intruders had simply thrown a fit. Remnants of burned foam-rubber padding lay on the floor everywhere, still giving off an acrid smell. And behind all this, standing silently, were the thirty brown storage cabinets containing the coins and the seals.
The first of these cabinets stood open and empty.
Nawala went down on one knee. She had hoped against hope that the looters had failed, but now that hope seemed dashed.
Bud Rogers pulled over a chair for her and she sat down. Then her head listed to one side and she hit the floor.
I motioned to Steve to turn off the camera. I also noticed that a couple of the BBC guys were following us now at a distance. "Clear the room!" I yelled. Then I sent for Claude, our computer whiz, who was also an EMT, an emergency medical technician.
I knelt down and touched Nawala's face. She was out cold. Her skin felt clammy, and she had only the faintest suggestion of a pulse. She was in shock-acute circulatory failure, with barely enough blood pressure to transport oxygen to the brain. And it doesn't take much of this before brain cells start dying from hypoxia.
We elevated her feet and fanned her face, but she gave no response. Claude came running and knelt down beside her. He was around Steve's age and I could see the sweat soaking his graying goatee. He looked her over. Then he turned to me and said, "Colonel, she might go out of the picture."
Now I was the one feeling light-headed. Nawala and I had become close. But it was also true that if she died, we were in deep trouble. I could see the headlines now: FAMED IRAQI EXPERT DIES IN U.S. CUSTODY.
"We've got to get her headgear off," Claude said.
That much was obvious. But I also knew that Nawala was no "Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday" sort of Muslim. I thought back to the way she had broken her toe to avoid touching me. For all the hours we'd worked together and the friendship we'd struck-and my team's nonstop "girlfriend" jokes notwithstanding-she and I had never so much as shaken hands. My team's mission in Baghdad was delicate enough without scandalizing Muslim sensibilities.
"We've got to get some women down here," I said.
Bud Rogers took off, running back up to the main floor, looking for some of the girls who were conducting the inventory of what was left of the museum's collection.
Excerpted from Thieves of Baghdad by Matthew Bogdanos Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Bogdanos. Excerpted by permission.
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