The brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this season of fifth-year anniversaries, one largely forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part because it relates directly to the politics of memory itself. Five years ago this week, US troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA)--one of the oldest and most used in the world. In Arab countries the old expression was "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads."
American troops were under orders not to intervene. Library staff who requested protection from the GI's were told, "We are soldiers, not policemen" or "our orders do not extend to protecting this [building]." American military orders did, however, extend to guarding the Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police.
The selective passivity of US forces was not only ethically questionable, but also a violation of international law. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries should not only be spared attack in wartime but also actively protected.