Iraqi Minister Fires Museum Chief

Should the Iraqi government reopen its long-shuttered archaeology museum in Baghdad? An Iraqi minister says yes, and the head of the country's archaeology board says no. So on 11 January, the minister fired the board president.

The trouble began 3 January, when Iraq's new minister of tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Juburi, made a surprise visit to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. He demanded that the museum be opened to the public by mid-February, say several Iraqi sources. The acting head of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), Amira Edan, argued against the minister's proposal, citing the uncertainty regarding Baghdad's security, says Donny George, former head of SBAH and now a professor in the United States, who spoke with Edan about the incident. When Edan was quoted in the Iraqi press shortly after opposing the minister's idea, the minister sent an 11 January letter accepting her resignation.

Edan had previously offered to resign because she lacked the confidence of the ministry, but that offer had not been accepted, says another source close to her who requested anonymity. Neither the ministry nor Edan responded to requests for interviews. But several U.S. and Iraqi archaeologists say that the minister wants to reopen the museum, which contains priceless artifacts from the first cities and empires, to show that Baghdad's long period of urban violence is over.

The ministry is controlled by a Shiite party eager to see U.S. troops depart Iraq. "If the museum is open, that is a message to the world that everything is fine and that the Americans can leave," says George. Unlocking the museum doors, he adds, "is a terrible thing to do." Another archaeologist close to Edan agrees that "this is all about political pressure."

But one researcher familiar with the situation says that a limited opening of the Assyrian and Islamic galleries poses no major threat. "The museum could be safely opened," the archaeologist says. "There is a good security system installed." But the "process is disturbing," the source adds, and the SBAH chief should have a say in the decision.