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Damage seen to ancient Babylon

Archeologists criticize site's use as coalition base

LONDON -- US-led troops using the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon as a base have damaged and contaminated artifacts dating back thousands of years in one of the most important archeological sites in the world, the British Museum said yesterday.

Military vehicles crushed a 2,600-year-old brick pavement, for example, and archeological fragments, including broken bricks stamped by King Nebuchadnezzar II around the same time, were scattered across the site, a museum report said.

The dragons at the Ishtar Gate were marred by cracks and gaps where someone tried to remove their decorative bricks, the paper said.

John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Near East department, who was invited by Iraqis to study the site, also found that large quantities of sand mixed with archeological fragments have been taken from the site to fill military sandbags.

''This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," Curtis said in the report.

In an interview yesterday with Associated Press Television News, Iraq's minister of culture, Mufeed al-Jazairee, said coalition troops in Babylon had used ''armored vehicles and helicopters that land and take off freely. In addition to that, the forces also set up other facilities and changes."

He added, ''I expect that the archeological city of Babylon has sustained damage, but I don't know exactly the size of such damage."

The remains of Babylon have been occupied since the early days of the invasion by US Marines, and more recently, by soldiers from Poland and other countries. Babylon is 50 miles south of Baghdad.

A Polish military spokesman in Iraq said troops were cooperating with Iraqi authorities in efforts to protect the site.

''I have asked our archeologists to prepare a specific answer to the accusations, but I have to give them some time," Lieutenant Colonel Artur Domanski said.

The city's main sites -- the Ishtar Gate, the ruins of Babylon, and the Nebuchadnezzar Palace -- are in a separate area on the camp's perimeter, run by Iraqi officials as an archeological park to paying visitors.

The US military says all earth-moving has been halted and it is considering moving troops away to protect the ruins.

Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said all engineering works were discussed with the head of the Babylon museum.

''An archeologist examined every construction initiative for its impact on historical ruins," he said.

In the report, Curtis acknowledged that at first the US presence had helped to protect the site from looters.

But subsequent work, including the decision to cover large areas of the site with gravel brought in from elsewhere to provide parking lots and heliports, was damaging, he said.

Lord Redesdale, an archeologist who heads a parliamentary archeology committee, described the report's findings as ''just dreadful."

''Not only is what the American forces are doing damaging the archeology of Iraq, it's actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world," he said.

For more than 1,000 years, Babylon was one of the world's premier cities, where King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The city declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great about 538 BC.

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