As Iraqi forces fight to take back Mosul from the Islamic State group, archaeologists trained by the British Museum are preparing for another battle -- trying to save what they can of the city's heritage. One of the world's leading institutions for the study of ancient Iraq, the London museum has been training Iraqi experts for the past year in high-tech methods to preserve and document their history.
"Once the city is liberated, there will be an enormous plan of reconstruction of the Museum of Mosul," Sebastien Rey, a lead archaeologist from the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, told AFP. "One of the participants of our scheme will be the first archaeologist to enter the museum and do an assessment of the destruction inside."
The programme is designed to "get people ready for the day" archaeological sites are taken back from IS control, said its director, Jonathan Tubb. "We wanted to do something positive and constructive in the face of the most appalling destruction that had been going on." Islamist militants in Iraq, Syria and Mali have targeted priceless cultural heritage sites after denouncing them as un-Islamic.
The Mosul area, home to several archaeological sites including the ancient cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, is of particular importance. In April 2015, the IS group released a video of its fighters destroying monuments in Nimrud before planting explosives around a site and blowing it up. Statues in Mosul's museum were also attacked, as was Hatra, a Roman-era site in Nineveh province.
The Iraqi army launched a massive operation in October to retake Mosul, Iraq's second city and the IS group's last major stronghold in the country. After recapturing the city's eastern flank, special forces are now fighting their way through the west in an offensive that began on Sunday.
- New discoveries -
Launched in January 2016, the British Museum's six-month training scheme sees Iraqi archaeologists spend three months in London and three months in Iraq. It includes training in the use of satellite imagery and digital mapping, as well as tools for documenting buildings and monuments.
The archaeologists then practise their new skills in secure sites across their home country, which has led to new discoveries. In Darband-i Rania, located in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, the new excavations unveiled a previously unknown fortified city.
"We found a city from the Parthian period, that's roughly the time of Christ," John MacGinnis, a senior archaeologist from the British Museum explained. In the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, or Tello, in southern Iraq, massive mud-brick walls belonging to a temple constructed in the third millennium BC, were discovered.
Tello has also proved useful for training because it is huge at around 250 hectares and has a very similar topographical layout to sites closer to Mosul.
- 'Change direction of history' -
The museum has long called for Britain to ratify an international convention to protect cultural artefacts in warzones, a measure that is currently making its way through parliament in London. In 2003, it raised the alarm on looting of major Iraqi museums and led a taskforce to the country in response to damage inflicted on cultural sites by the conflicts in the region.
A graduate of the British Museum scheme, which aims to train 50 archaeologists over a five-year period, is now leading the assessment in Nimrud. And Halkawt Qadir Omer, a current trainee from Arbil told AFP: "The training is very useful and beneficial for us and we can use the tools that we get here." Known as the cradle of civilisation, Iraq is still full of undiscovered treasures.
For Omer, the scheme offers much more than simple tools: "Now, we have contact with the British Museum to complete our projects, to discover and to change the direction of history and archaeology."