Art experts around the world joined the custodians of Baghdad's Iraq National Museum in expressing anguish and indignation at the two-day pillage that emptied one of the world's great treasure troves - and at the American military officers who stood by and watched it happen.
"These are the foundational cornerstones of Western civilization," said John Russell, a professor of art history and archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art.
In a frenzied rampage that began Thursday, the thieves took everything: Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled and celebrated the Cradle of Civilization. Despite pleas for help, museum employees say American troops nearby did virtually nothing to disperse the pillagers.
His voice shaking in anger, museum employee Ali Mahmoud tried to characterize the magnitude of the loss: "This is the property of this nation and the treasure of 7,000 years of civilization."
"What does this country think it is doing?"
Others blamed the troops that refused to step in.
"It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now," said one museum employee, who was reduced to tears by the looting. She refused to give her name.
Gordon Newby, a historian and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said the museum's most famous holding may have been tablets with Hammurabi's Code - one of mankind's earliest codes of law. It could not be determined whether the tablets were at the museum when the war broke out.
Other treasures believed to be housed at the museum - such as the Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600 BC - are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.
"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for our being able to understand the past," Newby said.
Left behind were row upon row of empty glass cases - some smashed up, others left intact - heaps of crumbled pottery and hunks of broken statues.
Sensing its treasures could be in peril, museum curators secretly removed antiquities from their display cases before the war and placed them into storage vaults - but to no avail. The doors of the vaults were opened or smashed, museum workers said.
McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago professor and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, was infuriated.
He said he had been in frequent and frantic touch with U.S. military officials since Wednesday, imploring them to send troops "in there and protect that building."
The Americans could have prevented the looting, agreed Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago who helped circulate a petition before the war, urging that care be taken to protect Iraqi antiquities.
"It was completely inexcusable and avoidable," she said.
U.S. military leaders have said they are doing their best to preserve Iraq's cultural heritage. They announced Saturday they will launch joint patrols with Iraqi police forces to stem the wave of looting.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, speaking at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, said order will be restored when the rampage burns out.
"We believe that it is tapering off," Brooks said. "I think we all just need to be patient and recognize that this is not something that happens overnight."
Among the museum's treasures was the copper head of an Akkadian king, at least 4,300 years old. Its eyes were gouged out, nose flattened, ears and beard cut off, apparently by subjects who took their revenge on his image - much the same way as other Iraqis mutilated statues of Saddam.
Some of the gold artifacts may be melted down, but most pieces will find their way into the hands of private collectors, said Russell.
The chances of recovery are slim; regional museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War, and 4,000 pieces were lost.
"I understand three or four have been recovered," he said.
Samuel Paley, a professor of classics at the State University of New York, Buffalo, predicted whatever treasures aren't sold will be trashed.
The looters are "people trying to feed themselves," said Paley, who has spent years tracking Assyrian reliefs previously looted from Nimrud in northern Iraq. "When they find there's no market, they'll throw them away. If there is a market, they'll go into the market."
Koichiro Matsuura, head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, on Saturday urged American officials to send troops to protect what was left of the museum's collection, and said the military should step in to stop looting and destruction at other key archaeological sites and museums.