LONDON, Jan 15: As the United States prepared to hand back the ancient ruins of Babylon to Iraqi authorities on Saturday, a leading British archaeologist alleged that Polish and US troops had caused "substantial damage" to a site that dates back to the dawn of history.

John Curtis, curator of the British Museum's Ancient Near East department, said the US-led forces, which have used the old city as a base since invading Iraq in 2003, had seriously compromised future scientific research at the site.

Among the alleged depradations, Mr Curtis said entire sections of the city had been flattened and covered with gravel, paving stones that had survived 2,600 years had been crushed by heavy military vehicles, and decorative bricks around the celebrated Ishtar Gate had been cracked and dislodged where people tried to prise them out of the wall.

Mr Curtis based his report on findings during a tour of the site last month. Although the United States has defended its decision to establish a base at Babylon, about 100kms south of Baghdad, Mr Curtis said it was "regrettable that a military camp of this size should then have been established on one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

"This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," he said. The only positive thing he had to say about the US presence is that it discouraged looting in the early stages after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

"Many areas around the site have been covered with gravel, sometimes compacted and chemically treated, to be used as a helipad and to create spaces for vehicle parks, accommodation, storage, etc," he added.

"This is extremely unfortunate from an archaeological point of view, as previously undisturbed archaeological deposits on the site will now be contaminated." Mr Curtis said fuel had leaked in one area, possibly harming archaeological deposits beneath."

"There is damage to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate, in one case serious damage to the body of the figure," he said, and "Parts of the roof of the (reconstructed) Ninmah Temple have collapsed."

Mr Curtis said the US-led forces had brought in large quantities of sand and earth from the surrounding region, which will make it difficult for scientists to know what came from the site and what came from elsewhere.

Babylon had been "irrevocably contaminated," he said. As a first step, he said the United States and its allies should ensure that all mines and ordnance are cleared from the area.

Capital of the Babylonian empire, and the site of the Tower of Babel as well as the Hanging Gardens, Babylon rose to greatness under King Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC and introduced the world's first code of law.

Mr Curtis has called for an international investigation to be carried out by archaeologists chosen by the Iraqi authorities, to compile a full inventory of damage sustained at the site. -AFP

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