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Iraq to protect its heritage

An agency will be set up to secure archaeological sites, such as Babylon, which were looted.

BAGHDAD - Iraq will dispatch police commandos to safeguard its archaeological heritage, the government said yesterday, announcing plans to protect sites such as the ancient city of Babylon that were left vulnerable to looting after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The announcement comes as Iraqi forces lay out plans to take over their security under a recently approved pact with the United States that sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, the commander of Iraq's National Police force, said an agency would be created to secure archaeological sites, which are only beginning to recover from widespread looting in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.

He said a similar directorate has already been established to protect embassies and diplomatic missions, which will eventually include the U.S. Embassy.

"We are discussing this matter with them," he said. "In the near future protection of [the U.S. Embassy] will be the responsibility of the Iraqi National Police and the movement of political missions will be under the Iraqi protection of the national police forces."

The National Police also will work with the Interior Ministry to create a protection force for the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad that houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters, Awadi said.

The Green Zone is currently guarded by the U.S. military and considered the safest area in Baghdad despite the danger of security breaches and rocket and mortar attacks.

But while the security pact gives Iraq full responsibility for the Green Zone, the Iraqis have the option of asking for help from the U.S. military.

Awadi said the ancient ruins that will fall under the new protection will include Babylon, one of the world's first cities, where Nebuchadnezzar II is believed to have built one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens.

Also included will be Ctesiphon, capital of the pre-Islamic Persian empire, on the Tigris river southeast of Baghdad, he said. During the 1991 Gulf War, shock waves from bombing triggered cracks at the ruins.