BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraq’s restored National Museum was formally dedicated on Monday, nearly six years after looters carried away priceless antiquities and treasures in the chaos following the U.S.-led invasion.
“It was a dark age that Iraq passed through,” said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a ceremony inside the museum. “This spot of civilization has had its share of destruction.”
The event came on the eve of the museum’s full public opening Tuesday, which officials have touted as another milestone in Baghdad’s slow return to stability after years of bloodshed.
The museum has a hall devoted to antiquities that were looted but later returned or recovered, said Abdul-Zahrah al-Talqani, media director of Iraq’s office of tourism and archaeology affairs.
“We have ended the black wind (of violence) and have started the reconstruction process,” al-Maliki told hundreds of officials and guardians of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage.
The museum — once one of the world’s leading collections of artifacts spanning the Stone Age, biblical era and the heights of Islamic culture — was nearly gutted in the mayhem after the fall of Saddam Hussein. U.S. troops, the sole power in the city at the time, were intensely criticized for not protecting the museum’s collection.
Up to 7,000 pieces are still missing, including about 40 to 50 considered to be of great historical importance, according to the U.N. cultural body UNESCO.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a Sunni lawmaker accused of masterminding bombings and other brutalities claimed he is a victim of a government campaign to silence critics.
In a news conference, Mohammed al-Dayni alleged the Shiite-led government tortured two of his former bodyguards — one of them his nephew — to make the accusations, including that he directed a 2007 bombing inside the parliament building that killed one person. He urged human rights groups to visit the guards in prison to investigate their treatment.
Authorities on Sunday released videos of the bodyguards’ interrogations, which included allegations that al-Dayni once ordered more than 100 people buried alive to avenge the slayings of some of his gunmen.
But an arrest warrant for al-Dayni cannot be issued until parliament lifts his immunity from prosecution. Aliya Nsayef, a member of a secular bloc in parliament, called for a special commission to study the allegations before voting on the immunity — suggesting that a quick decision is unlikely.
Al-Dayni has frequently complained about alleged rights abuses against Sunnis and suspected Iranian influence over Shiite politicians.
“The confessions of my bodyguards were forcefully taken and they lack evidence to support them,” he said. “I am paying the price of revealing many cases of human rights violations and corruption.”
Violence has declined drastically in Baghdad, but attacks continue to strike Iraqis.
Gunmen ambushed an Iraqi army checkpoint Monday in western Baghdad, killing three soldiers and wounding eight other people, according to police. The attackers then fled in two SUVs.
A roadside bombing in central Baghdad also killed at least two civilians and wounded six, said police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
The attack apparently was aimed at a police patrol, but missed its target on a busy street in central Baghdad.
Around the northern city of Mosul — considered the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq — more than 100 suspected insurgents and others have been arrested as part of an Iraq-led offensive launched last week, said Brig. Gen. Saeed Ahmed al-Jibouri.
Al-Jibouri described the crackdowns as “more of an intelligence war than a military one” as commandos stage targeted raids seeking suspects on most-wanted lists.