The semi-private al-Awqaf Library, founded in 1920, is the oldest heritage institution in Iraq. It is situated near the Ministry of Health in Baghdad. It contained 45,000 rare printed books of which 6,000 were in the Ottoman script as well as a number of special collections. The staff was able to put 5,250 of 7, 000 in safekeeping, including a collection of Korans.
Spurr’s report does not contain a comprehensive description of the horrible fate of this institution, but the Middle East Library Association has published on its web site an earlier report by University of Chicago graduate student Nabil Al-Tikriti in June 2003 and another report written a year later by the Iraqi archivist Zain Al-Naqshbandi.
On April 13 or 14, 2003, arsonists completely destroyed the library. All of the 45,000 books, including Ottoman manuscripts and a collection of rare medical texts, were burnt, and much of the library’s equipment such as Xerox machines, air conditioners, and bookbinding materials appears to have been looted previously (looting of equipment was the rule for other libraries as well). The 5,250 manuscripts remain undamaged.
The US military bears responsibility for the destruction of another 1,744 manuscripts. These had been removed before the fire and placed under armed guard at the Qadiriyya Mosque complex. Operating under a policy to shoot armed Iraqis on sight, US forces killed the guard on April 13. The al-Awqaf staff returned these manuscripts to the library, now unguarded because of the American \”rules of engagement.\” These manuscripts were either looted or incinerated.
The arson itself bears a particularly suspicious and notorious character in Iraq. According to Al-Tikriti’s report and press accounts at the time, approximately 15 Arab males using an incendiary substance systematically burned the library. Two other men from this group videotaped the arson.
Many Iraqis believe, as the American press has also reported, that the arsonists, based on the dialect they were overheard using, were Kuwaitis. This supposition, however, remains unproven.
No international agency appears to have come to the assistance of this library.