05/05/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Donny George stood his ground even as the bombs were dropping on Baghdad. He camped out in his office at Iraq's National Museum, a collection of riches once unequaled in the Arab world, until fighting between U.S. troops and Republican Guards spilled into the museum's front yard April 8 and forced him and a small cadre of employees to flee out the back door. "We were lucky to escape with our lives," says George.
The museum's precious contents were less fortunate: By the time George, 49, talked his way through an American checkpoint and returned to the building April 20, looters and sophisticated art thieves had ransacked the galleries and underground vaults, hauling off—or simply destroying—carvings from Babylon, gold, jewelry and scrolls containing some of the world's earliest known examples of writing. Some items are rumored to have already turned up on the black market in Europe. With records also destroyed, it could take months for experts to assess the loss. "It's like wiping out half of the Louvre," says former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, now an Iraq expert at Washington, D.C.'s War College. "These were the riches from the cradle of civilization."
Why didn't the Americans step in? "To the extent [looting] happens in a war zone, it's difficult to stop," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when asked that question April 15. But George, a 25-year veteran of Iraq's archeology service who is used to going on digs with a Kalashnikov to ward off vandals, blames Washington for protecting Saddam Hussein's former Ministry of Oil building while leaving his museum vulnerable. "Saying I'm heartbroken doesn't express it," he says. "I feel as if my heart is gone."