Murder, mayhem and museums

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While Iraq struggles to return to peaceful normality, the British have been working to restore some of the country's pride in its past - with a museum.

British soldiers withdrew from the palace compound in September 2007. Now, the building itself is deserted, and I have to wait for an Iraqi police colonel to turn up with the key.

In his mind's eye, John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, can already see the site transformed into a museum for Basra's many ancient treasures. Before I left for Basra, I met him in the British Museum's rooms full of Assyrian wall reliefs, and had just enough time to marvel at the exhibition on ancient Babylon, a place not far from today's Basra.

Just a few years ago, the very idea of a new museum in Basra would have been laughable. The focus was on security, and reconstructing the essentials of daily life, such as a working sewage system. Those projects are still not complete, but more than five years on, Basra is indeed a place transformed, with British forces looking to withdraw from the region altogether by the end of July.

Basra's collection of antiquities have survived somewhat against the odds. The city's old museum was ransacked during the first Gulf War of 1991, and its valuable collection of vases, terracotta and stone figures, bronze weapons, jewellery and cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets, were moved to the capital, where they were locked in a vault. That's how they escaped the 2003 looting.

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