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Don't Bomb the Past

DURING World War II, an allied bomber pilot complained about taking a risky turn during a bombing run in order to save ``some church'' down there. The church, it turns out, was the 13th-century Chartres Cathedral. As the US-led coalition continues its devastation of military targets in Iraq, it will be necessary for the allies to become ever more sensitive to the possibility of broader damage in that country.

Iraq does not have as many ``built'' cultural monuments as Europe. But Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization, is itself a cultural monument - the place where the wheel, writing, and cities were invented. Spectacular remains, such as the Parthian city of Hatra and the ziggurat at Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq, are known and will be avoided.

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Yet much of the possible damage to cultural treasures won't be known for years. About 90 percent of Mesopotamia is still just below ground. Only two years ago archaeologists unearthed a previously unknown 4,000 year old city, Mashkan-shapir, mentioned in the writings of King Hammurabi. The six-lane highway running through Iraq that Saddam Hussein will use to resupply his troops splits the ancient valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the cities of Babylon, Kish, and Nippur are located. Carpet bombing could wipe out 5,000-year-old artifacts in five minutes.

Perhaps more important than the thousands of sites, now just mounds in the desert, are Iraq's museums. They house irreplaceable records. Some 100,000 cuneiform tablets in Baghdad museums haven't been read.

Something about bombing the world's oldest civilization, in the name of civilization and order, ought to give pause. More assertions from the coalition about taking such matters seriously should be forthcoming. The coalition does not want to be remembered - rightly or wrongly - as destroyers of antiquity. Those planning air attacks should make a point of using the exhaustive Atlas of Archeological Sites painstakingly put together by Western and Iraqi scientists.

A true new world order treasures its irreplaceable heritage.

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