BABYLON, Iraq -- The roots of Western law and writing sprang from the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization here, the site of the resplendent Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The palace of Hammurabi and King Nebuchadnezzar -- like antiquities throughout this country -- has met a fate that has devastated Iraqis and archeologists throughout the world.
Armies not of fighters but of looters, capitalizing on a security vacuum after war, have pillaged Babylon, ancient ruins in the northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, and worst of all in the eyes of specialists in Mesopotamian archeology, they ransacked the Iraqi National Museum, which housed most of the country's important artifacts.
''It's the crime of the century, because it affects the heritage of all mankind,'' said Donny George, curator of Iraq's national museum, who's been consumed for the past week with the grievous task of sorting through fragments and ashes to see what survived the marauding horde of looters.
The wholesale thieving of the country's archeological sites in the days after American troops entered the capital and Saddam Hussein's government collapsed has not only served as an affront to Iraqi culture, but it has created an embarrassing image problem for the United States.
All that's left at the sun-drenched palace of Babylon are the clay bricks used to reconstruct the ancient structure, a move that residents dismiss as Disney-esque. All the most valuable artifacts from here, including sculptures and tablets that document the early development of laws, writing and mathematics, in Mesopotamia, had been moved to the museum in Baghdad for safekeeping.
Many people in Baghdad, including the museum's staff, believe US soldiers callously stood by a week ago as thieves overran the museum, stealing at least three priceless works of ancient art and destroying or making off with an untold number of artifacts from the museum vault.
''Looters entered this building while American tanks were on the street here,'' said Jabir Khalil, chairman of Iraq's state board of antiquities, standing in the front yard of the museum. ''They could have protected this building.''
The company from the Third Infantry Division now guarding the museum -- four days after their help was requested, according to the museum director -- insist they were pinned down in a firefight with Fedayeen militia, who had taken cover on the museum's grounds.
''We took fire from the museum, but we inflicted minimal damage,'' said Staff Sergeant David Richard, who now guards the grounds. ''Now we're getting blamed for it getting looted.''
While sites around the country were pillaged by looters, the museum perhaps suffered the worst. Valuable artifacts were on display from Babylon, the remains of Nineveh in northern Iraq, and from sites all over the country.
The day after US troops entered the city, thieves breached the museum and trashed the administrative area.
Museum officials believe knowledgeable art thieves followed the crowds into the museum and lifted three pieces of art: the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Acadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and a headless Sumerian statue.
The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.
A week ago, George and Khalil, the chairman of the antiquities board, had to walk over destroyed antiquities as they surveyed the ruins of the museum. Now, it's unclear how many works of art were taken. The vault was breached, but George said early reports of more than a hundred thousand missing artifacts could prove exaggerated.
Some shame-faced neighbors already have begun returning artifacts to the neighborhood mosque.
Over the weekend, Jordanian customs officials seized 42 looted paintings at the border, and George expects other works to surface on the black market in coming months, where he hopes Interpol or the FBI will find them.
While Babylon and the Baghdad museum are the most obvious symbols of the plight of Iraq's ancient heritage, the country boasts 10,000 registered archeological sites, many of which have not been excavated.
The fortress in Kirkuk and the remains of Nineveh near Mosul have survived conquering armies and the sacking of capitals through the ages, but didn't fare as well during last week's looting.
In the ancient fortress on a hill with a commanding view of Kirkuk, oil fires were burning and there were the sounds of distant artillery shelling and machine-gun fire. Three men were using a pick ax to enter the brick minaret of a mosque near the traditional site of the tomb of the biblical patriarch Daniel.
The fortress sits atop layers of civilizations past -- Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian. The structure itself dates to the Ottoman Empire and once held beautiful tile work, columns, and lintels -- all looted on Thursday morning during the fall of Kirkuk, according to the security guard there.
Down the hill in Kirkuk's Museum of Antiquities, the glass cabinets that held the museum pieces were all smashed. All that was left of a collection that included Babylonian jewelry, Sumerian pottery shards, and busts of Assyrian kings was the outline of their shape in the dust on the shelves from which they were stolen.
''It is a catastrophe for us,'' said Hashem Hama Abdoulah, director of the museum of antiquities in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish-controlled zone of northern Iraq. ''When your history is stolen from you, you lose your sense of that history. Not just the Iraqi people, but all of civilization that can trace its roots back to this area.'' The fortress in Kirkuk is of particular value to the Kurds, he said, because it sheds light on the history of an ethnic group violently suppressed by Saddam Hussein. Kurds were even forbidden to enter the museum that housed pieces of their history.
''Their intention was to destroy our culture, not to allow us to preserve it or to understand it,'' said Abdoulah.
Even as the shock of postwar antiquities looting echoes throughout the Iraqi body politic, the historical sites and artifacts themselves offer a distinct outlet for a people searching for alternative national symbols. After decades where Hussein held the sole pride of place in this nation's iconography, figures like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar have suddenly assumed renewed importance.
''Babylon was the capital of the world, the mother of all laws. They knew how to rule,'' said Saheb El-Doulaimy, a guide at the site.
Even here -- especially here -- Hussein has left his mark. A gargantuan presidential palace overshadows the site of Babylon. In a move that offended archeological purists and common Iraqis alike, Hussein rebuilt a likeness of Nebuchadnezzar's palace on its ancient site. An inscription on the bricks at eye level reads: ''Saddam Hussein, the protector of Iraq, rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon.''
''I feel sorry for Iraq,'' said Kazem Al-Hassnawi, who works at a guesthouse for the trickle of tourists who visit Babylon. ''All Iraqis see Babel as the symbol of our civilization, our pride and joy. The world knows Iraq because of this place.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company