In his address to the American people on March 1st, President George W. Bush said the people of Iraq have a "proud heritage." A cradle of civilization, Iraq is the home of the world's first cities. Many scholars believe that writing, agriculture, and government first developed there. Some ten-thousand archeological sites have been identified.
Iraq's cultural treasures include the sites of ancient Babylon, a civilization that flourished nearly four-thousand years ago. Nineveh [nin uh vuh], in northern Iraq, was the center of the Assyrian empire. Its magnificent palaces, libraries, and sculptures are among the greatest discoveries of archeologists. Iraq's religious shrines include the Al Abbas mosque in Karbala [kahr-bah-lah], sacred to Shiite Muslims. Preserving these irreplaceable cultural and religious treasures will be a major U.S. goal, in the event that Saddam Hussein's refusal to disarm makes war necessary.
Tragically, Iraq's shrines and cultural artifacts are being placed at risk by the Saddam Hussein regime itself. Iraq is deliberately placing troops and military equipment near cultural sites and civilian areas. It was a practice Iraq followed in the 1991 Gulf War. During that conflict, Iraq's military leaders placed two MiG-21 fighter planes near the four-thousand-year-old Ziggurat [zig-urh-aht], or temple tower, of Ur [oohr]. They hoped to provoke U.S.-led coalition military forces into attacking the Iraqi warplanes and damaging or destroying a world cultural treasure. It didn't happen. Throughout the 1991 war, the U.S. and its allies made a maximum effort to avoid damaging cultural and religious sites or inflicting casualties on civilians.
Saddam Hussein has no such scruples. His security forces have deliberately desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites. They killed thousands of Iraqi civilians with poison gas and other weapons. In 1990, during the build-up to the Gulf War, his regime detained Western civilians and then used them and Iraqi civilians as human shields around military targets.
As President Bush said, "Saddam Hussein has a long history of brutal crimes, especially in time of war -- even against his own citizens. If conflict comes, he could target civilians or place them inside military facilities." Deliberately putting civilians at risk and endangering cultural and religious sites is a serious violation of the laws of war. If the Iraqi regime takes this course, it will be held accountable.