'Iraq is steeped in history.'

The ziggurat at Ur rises above the remains of possibly the earliest known city in the world.

There is a grinning rictus of irony in the fact that we regard Iraq as the cradle of civilisation. Current events suggest that "civilisation" has remained a laughably abused term in the 7,000 years since the early Mesopotamians started gouging out irrigation trenches and canals between the converging Tigris and Euphrates rivers, creating a fertile haven that would nurture social and cultural development to a hitherto unsurpassed scale.

In that sense, the heritage of the Iraqi people is also the heritage of the modern world, the remains of the Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures credited with the invention of cuneiform writing, accounting, glass, the wheel ... even bureaucracy. The relics of their buildings and monuments dot the Iraqi landscape in their thousands; and even as the co-ordinates of the most notable among them are being fed into the computers of "smart" weaponry, in a bid to avoid hitting them, archaeologists internationally are voicing their concern that the US-led bombing and land campaigns will do irreparable damage to this immeasurably rich archaeological treasure trove.

Beyond the best-known remains, whose fabulous names still resonate with wonder - Babylon, capital of Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great; Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian king Sennacherib; Ur of the Chaldees, even the supposed site of the Garden of Eden, experts estimate that between 10,000 and a million sites of archaeological significance are scattered across Iraq. Some are self-evidently spectacular, such as the vast ziggurat at Ur, or the mighty arch at Ctesiphon, until recent times regarded as the largest single span in the world; but the landscape of southern Iraq in particular, is a flat, silty plain on which virtually the only hummocks will be man-made and most probably of archaeological importance. Unfortunately, they will also be of significant interest to the Allied tank commander or the Iraqi Republican Guardsman.

"These lumps and bumps may have been made recently," says Dr Harriet Crawford, chairman of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (which, in fact, has had no presence in the country since 1990). "More probably they will have been made thousands of years ago. But they all have strategic possibilities: that’s where you’ll put your radar or your anti-aircraft batteries, that sort of thing. And to that extent they become legitimate military targets."

Experts are now warning that the US administration’s absolute determination to depose Saddam Hussein could mean correspondingly greater damage than the last time around. The Archaeological Association of America recently expressed its concern, passing a resolution on "war and the destruction of antiquities", which urges all governments to honour the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Britain and America, while claiming to observing the Hague Convention, which prohibits the targeting of cultural and religious sites during warfare unless militarily justified, never fully ratified it.

As it is, the Desert Storm offensive in 1991 left its mark on Iraq’s archaeological riches. At Ur, the fabled Sumerian city and supposed home of the biblical patriarch Abraham, where excavations by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s generated public excitement to rival Howard Carter’s Tutankhamen discoveries, the vast, mud-brick ziggurat now bears the scars of American missile or shell fire. At Ctesiphon, near Baghdad, the great arch sustained cracking, while ancient houses within the citadel at Kerkuk were destroyed by bombing. At Tell al-Lahm, south of Ur, ancient sites were damaged by American bulldozers, while during the Iran-Iraq war, the ancient city of Dell, now Tell Aqar, became a major Iraqi army installation, with irreparable damage to a 4,500-year-old temple there.

The problem is that many of these sites are or were in close proximity to military targets. There was an Iraqi air base and radar installation at Ur; and Al Qurnah, said to be the site of the Garden of Eden and boasting shrines going back to the earliest days of Islam, is near Basra with its infrastructure of air and naval bases, weapons research complexes and oil refineries, which were all bombed during the 1991 campaign. The northern town of Mosul, with its mosques, palaces and museum collections was also a target during the Gulf War, with missile bases and weapons research centres nearby.

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank visited Mosul last November, while making a programme, The Lost Cities of Iraq, which went out on BBC2 last month. Among other things, he recalls, "I went to the museum at Mosul, which contains the most spectacular objects of international importance, and while I was there these things were being removed for their protection. With Mosul being in the no-fly zone, the museum had been barricaded against bombs and there were British and American planes flying overhead. And here were these fragile and vulnerable pieces of jewellery and other artefacts being taken away, and I suddenly realised, these will maybe never be seen again, because if there is war, there is chaos and lawlessness."

Cruickshank regards the potential situation as a cultural catastrophe if the highest order.

"The thing about Iraq is that, although there is just one UNESCO World Heritage Site, at Hatra, the whole country is potentially a historic site, even though it may not all be as world-famous as Nineveh." Which sites would give him most concern? "I suppose the ones in the south, where if there’s a land war it’ll be coming up from Kuwait - the great Sumerian cities of Uruk and Ur, which have been excavated, mainly by the British, but much of them hasn’t yet been investigated, just the temple complexes.

"Certainly Ur was attacked in the 1991 war. I was shown it and there was definitely evidence of it having come under fire. There’s no doubt that Saddam has done this, integrated factories and military installations in residential areas and on historic sites."

Commenting on the claims that "smart" munitions will not hit sites of international heritage, Cruickshank says: "Well, weapons are only as intelligent as the people who use them, and people aren’t very intelligent, are they? The ironic thing is I’ve now heard that the Americans are programming the co-ordinates of historic sites into their weapons systems but, of course, if I know that, the Iraqis will know that, which makes them more likely to be used as camouflage for troops of whatever, which will make them even more vulnerable. When it comes to the heat of action, I don’t think anybody’s going to say, ‘Don’t bomb Ur because the military base is under a ziggurat …’"

Like Crawford, he regards the ziggurats and other eminences rising above the flat lands of Iraq as being of strategic importance. "They’ll be occupied by one side or the other, and they’ll be shelling them, and it could be like Monte Cassino, during the Second World War, which was an important Benedictine monastery, reduced to rubble."

Crawford identifies two periods of maximum danger, so far as Iraq’s antiquities are concerned: firstly the initial "rolling barrage" of air strikes; secondly the aftermath of the conflict: "If the first Gulf war was any guide at all, there was an appalling outbreak of civil unrest and wholesale looting of museums, and there was a great deal of damage done to archaeological sites as well."

Both she and Cruickshank express their concern at the continued leaching of treasures out of the country, to unscrupulous dealers. Thus, in 1996, for instance, you could find 2,700-year-old wall reliefs from the throne-room of the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, advertised on the antiquities market, as well as similar fragments rifled from the palace of Tiglath-pileser III at Nimrud.

"Some of this," suggests Crawford, "seems to have been looting organised at the very highest levels of the Iraqi regime. But some of it is simply those who saw a way of turning a quick buck in order to save their families from starving."

It is already acknowledged in certain quarters that, whatever happens over the next few weeks, the conservation of Iraq’s archaeological heritage should play a significant part in it. Crawford points to the importance of this heritage in a country with such a diversity of ethnic groups, such as Shia and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and Christians. "Obviously, we are hoping that, whatever happens next, there will be opportunities for international aid in the reconstruction of the country, and part of that may be to re-establish museums and to help in the conservation of both sites and artefacts, including an urgently needed survey of standing monuments to archaeological significance."

Some of those concerned don’t look to the politicians with too much hope. "Mr Hoon could not tell a Sumerian from a saloon bar," remarked one acerbic American commentator, discussing the UK defence secretary’s claim that the Allies would only go for military targets. At Ur, the shell marks pitting the massive brickwork of the ziggurat, fuel the worst fears of those on both sides of the conflict who care for this vast repository of the very beginnings of what we call civilisation.

In Biblical tales, the arrogant raising of the great ziggurat of Babylon, the Tower of Babel, prompted divine retribution in the form of the fragmenting of language - "babble". The violent chaos about to be visited on the area, quite apart from its direct and tragic human cost, could further decimate and destroy a heritage which, in essence, belongs to us all.

For further information on threatened heritage sites in Iraq, visit http://users.ox.ac.uk/~wolf0126/index.html