IT WAS THE day after the fall of Baghdad, the evening of April 10, and Dr Ahmed Kamil was at home, listening to the BBC Arabic Service's coverage of the war. Kamil is a director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, where he has worked for 27 years. 'Suddenly, the news said that looters had entered the Iraq Museum and they had stolen more than 100,000 pieces,' says Kamil. 'And I laughed. I knew that the people in the museum had emptied all the cases that contained small things and put them in a safe place, and that they left the big ones - the heavy items - on the walls. But ...' At this point, Kamil lights the first of many cigarettes, his hand shaking, his sentences growing shorter. '... But I had a doubt. I came to the museum on April 14, when the Americans had arrived. In the beginning, they prevented us from entering. Of course. They were protecting the museum. That's good. 'After 15 minutes, they recorded our names and we entered. And ... and ... everything was destroyed.' He makes an encompassing gesture, but there are no artefacts in this room off a corridor in the Iraq Museum - just a couple of plastic chairs, a pile of exposed film in a corner, an old typewriter and an air of picked-over loss. After a short silence, he says: 'It was the worst moment in my life when I saw my museum destroyed.' The story of the Iraq Museum has become one of the metaphors of the war: truth being the first casualty in any conflict, it's a story in which no one seems to know what really happened, the goodies and the baddies barely distinguishable (reading the over-wrought media reports, it's difficult to decide who committed the greater sin - the looters or the US troops who watched them). Outside experts were enlisted to babble on about Babylon, thereby adding to the sense of apocalyptic confusion ('the crime of the century', 'a tragedy that has no parallel in world history' and so on). It was initially said that 170,000 artefacts had been stolen, but that figure turned out to be the size of the whole collection; the number of missing items has been steadily downscaled ever since. In late October, Pietro Cordone, a senior adviser for cultural affairs with the United States Provisional Authority in Iraq, told a seminar in Rome that 10,000 objects had been stolen but that 'these are not objects for show, they are objects for study and research'. He announced that the number of items of 'great value' that are unaccounted for is 32. Still, the fact that the looters came, with pickaxes, knives, guns, even bits of metal taken from car engines and fashioned into weapons, smashed their way into the museum and made off with a certain amount of booty (including many late 20th-century artefacts such as computers, photocopiers and desk chairs) is incontrovertible. It was this physical devastation that Kamil witnessed, and even though he had laughed at the original BBC report, and even though he knew the losses were being over-hyped by a factor of at least 15, he now looks up, over his cigarette, and cries, 'Nobody can feel better in this situation. Nobody! I challenge anyone to come to this museum to see this and to feel better.' At the moment, no one is likely to take up that challenge, because the museum is still closed and likely to stay so for the foreseeable future. The security situation in post-war Baghdad has been and remains dire; in September a US soldier mistakenly fired at Cordone's car as he was touring archaeological sites in the countryside, wounding him and killing his Iraqi interpreter; in July, 24-year-old British journalist Richard Wild was shot dead, by an unknown assassin, as he crossed the road outside the museum. Leaving aside these human considerations - and the mental adjustment required to enter a cultural space that is patrolled by men carrying AK-47rifles - there is the state of the building itself. The authorities have now acquired a generator, so there is electricity, but there is no air-conditioning; on the day this interview took place, several western contractors were doing a brisk tour of the galleries to assess what work was needed to replace the smashed glass cases. Doors still bear the shredded marks of hatchet blows, and those offices that have been repainted are eerily vacant: no pictures, no books, not a single artefact on view. There are, however, two galleries that have now been refurbished, deliberate psychological beacons to show the museum staff, and the rest of the world, what can be made to shine in the darkness. They are the Islamic and Assyrian galleries. To enter them, Kamil passes a stack of paintings ('from the Saddam Centre of Art Painting, they brought them here to be safe ...'), unlocks a gate, proceeds down a passage lined with pottery graves dating from 1400 BC - the looters, too, had come here, lashing out with their chosen weapons, trying to destroy what could not be taken - and then walks into the warm silence of the Islamic gallery. There are items of extreme beauty and delicacy here, carved with floral tracings and holy texts; many pieces originally came from a mosque in Mosul, a town currently better known for its dangers than its artistic qualities. There is also a decorative panel from the 14th century which bears a text from the Koran: Enter It Peacefully. When the irony of this is pointed out to Kamil, he stands for a moment, still smoking and creased-browed, trying to come to terms with what happened all those months ago, during a spring of entrances and exits, none of them peaceful. In Iraq, looters are called Ali Babas, and Kamil says, almost to himself, 'I don't know why they call them that, Ali Baba is not a thief - he takes from the rich to give to the poor.' Yet perhaps the most significant question about the Ali Babas is this: what does it say about the moral influence of a museum upon a society if it is one of the first places to be attacked? It's now thought that many of the looters believed the Iraq Museum was simply a government building, which suggests that the museum had little relevance for people in the city. Isn't that, too, a failure - at least in part - of the museum itself? Kamil nods and puts his hand over his heart. 'Exactly. Maybe it's our fault. It's a lack of understanding of the place a museum should have in a society. They thought it belonged to the ex-regime ... They did not understand that they looted themselves, and the future of their children and what their children can learn. 'We must think about this when we open again. The people of this country have had a civilisation for 7,000 years. We must start again.' He moves on to the Assyrian gallery. On entering, one is halted by a moment of pure wonderment; the gallery, with its massive bas-relief of winged bulls (the symbol of the Assyrian empire) and its eighth-century BC statue of the god, Nabu, conveys such a powerful sense of solidity after the frazzling mayhem of the city outside that it's almost a physical wrench to adapt from one world to another. 'We put down 2,800 bags of sand on the floor because we thought these reliefs would fall down from the shock of the American bombing,' explains Dr Kamil. 'And nothing fell. We are lucky. Look at this statue.' It's a small figure, labelled Shalmanezzer III (858-824 BC). 'Three people came to the museum, four days after the Americans arrived. They said, 'We are not looters. We saw the looting begin and we entered with the looters and we tried to make ourselves like the looters. And now we are here to return this'.' Kamil's voice breaks. Then he resumes: 'If they had sold this piece, they would be millionaires for many generations ... And they refused the reward. They refused US$500. They returned it for our civilisation.' A cuneiform slab was returned at the same time. Kamil, an expert in that field (an expert, incidentally, who has never been outside Iraq - 'The regime kept everyone with PhDs inside the borders in case they defected' - and so has never seen the Assyrian galleries at the British Museum in London) bends over the slab and reads aloud the ancient words: 'A great palace ... a mighty king.' When he looks up, he glances around the gallery and says, 'We wanted to clean this first, because it makes it look as if everything is open. And that nothing has happened.' On the way out, the gate Kamil has opened is relocked by an old man with bright, shrewd eyes and a towel neatly folded on his head, whose name is Haje Abid. He is 76 years old, and has worked at the Iraq Museum for 60 years. On the second day of looting, Abid tried to stop the Ali Babas; they told him to stand aside or be shot. 'It's his world,' says Kamil. 'He can't leave the museum. He is the first person to open it every day, and he is the last one to close it every night. He has seen many things in his life.' Perhaps, one day Abid will open the door of the museum to an Iraqi public waiting to learn about itself, its past and its future. 'He will do it,' says Kamil. Abid, to whom this is translated into Arabic, simply adds that prayer of the piously optimistic: 'Inshallah.' God willing.