The UK risks squandering 150 years of influence in Iraqi archaeology because of a lack of government funding, leading archaeologists have warned.
The experts want Britain to play a prominent role in protecting the unique heritage of the region. But they have become concerned that no extra state funding has been found at a critical time for the country's antiquities.
The US is paying Iraqi scholars to study at American universities, Italian police are training Iraqis to protect key sites from looters, Italy and Japan have funded a new conservation laboratory in Baghdad, and Germany is offering money for training.
UK initiatives - which include the British Academy's gift of £12,000 towards rebuilding the National Museum's library in Baghdad and two assessment trips by British Museum staff - Jwere paid for by private money.
Lord Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University and a Conservative peer, recently received vague words of support in response to written questions as to what action the Government was taking to conserve Iraq's heritage. "You would think they would seize an opportunity to do something positive, but there is no hint of that. Sadly, we will no longer have a significant role in developing the archaeology of Iraq," he said.
British archaeologists have worked in Iraq since Victorian times and set up the National Museum. Yet the British School of Archaeology in Iraq may appeal for money to return to the country. Harriet Crawford, chairman of the school, said: "Britain is in danger of losing all the influence she used to have and of becoming an also-ran in this field."
Nicholas Postgate, professor of Assyriology at Cambridge, said Iraqi graduates should be funded to study at British universities to help rebuild the country's archaeological service.
"Heritage is one of Iraq's prime resources and the British Government should take that seriously if it is in the business of reconstruction. I'm not sure that they do," he said.
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman said at least £831 million had been pledged for reconstruction but was unaware of funds allotted for conservation. She added: "It doesn't mean the Government is not concerned."