The burning of Iraq's National Library is a "devastating loss" and is the equivalent of losing the British Library, international academics said. The US military's failure to prevent the calamity must be investigated to prevent it happening again, they added.
After the looting and burning at government ministries and the ransacking of Iraq's main archaeological museum, the burning of the library, with its thousands of rare printed books and hand-written archives, marks a further erasure of Iraq's past, obliterating large chunks of Middle Eastern history and destroying many unique documents.
Geoffrey Roper, head of the Islamic Bibliography Unit at Cambridge University, said: "If people's personal possessions are lost they can be replaced, but these things can never be replaced.
"The archive contained a lot of early Arabic printed books, which are very scarce and very fragile, a lot of which have survived in just one or two editions. We've also lost material from the library of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which contained rare early legal and literary materials, priceless Korans, calligraphy and illumination – the kind of thing that appeared in international exhibitions in the past," he said.
Some of Iraq's most valuable collections may yet be safe, because they were stored separately at the Saddam Library. If those too had been looted, Dr Roper said, it would mean "a whole nation's collections had been wiped out".
Andreas Riedlmayer, an Islamic art and architecture specialist from Harvard who has also studied the destruction of the National Library in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, said he believed some of the destruction was quite deliberate.
Although mob rule played a part, he believed some archives – especially in ministries and police stations – were deliberately destroyed to eradicate the evidence of Saddam Hussein's repressive rule. In the case of libraries and museums, he believed many of the most precious treasures had been taken intact for sale on the international art market, and the rest destroyed to create confusion about what was missing.
"One must not oversimplify it. There was no one clear motive," Dr Riedlmayer said. "But this was certainly opportunistic on the part of people who held positions of power. At the National Museum, the vault doors were opened undamaged, which means someone had a key and deliberately let the mob in."
He said: "One speculation is that people with access stole selected valuable objects and then left the place open, hoping everything would be attributed to the mob rather than to them."
Dr Riedlmayer described the failure of American troops to prevent the looting as "totally discreditable", saying they had violated a whole series of international conventions on the rules of war. He said an investigation was essential, not so much to assign blame as to make sure everyone understood what had gone wrong.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd