KIRKUK, Iraq, May 12, 2009 (AFP) - When Ayad Tariq paces the dusty ruins of the ancient citadel towering over the disputed city of Kirkuk he sees a dazzling new tourist attraction just waiting to rise from the ruins.
"We are going to make this a tourist citadel. So a house like this could be a museum," the city's antiquities director explained as he strode through the ruins of a 19th century mansion that belonged to a wealthy Christian family.
Tariq wants visitors from around the world to see the splendours of the 4,600-year-old citadel, but the isolation imposed by Iraq's turmoil has left him working largely alone.
|The keeper of the ancient citadel of Kirkuk walks on its ruins in the northern Iraqi city on April 22, 2009 (AFP photo)|
The Kirkuk citadel rests on a massive archaeological mound that contains the remains of cities and settlements going back thousands of years, including more than 60 guard towers erected by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.
Nowadays it stands guard over Iraq's most disputed city, the oil-rich epicentre of a conflict between the government in Baghdad and Iraq's Kurds, who want to add the ethnically mixed city to their autonomous region.
The citadel has been cut off from international scholars and funding by a steady drumbeat of attacks in the streets below, and the monuments Tariq says have undergone "conservation" appear to have been recently rebuilt.
There is a covered market with mediaeval arches but was only erected 10 years ago. Tariq said the original stone structure, dating back to the 11th century, collapsed and was buried.
"But we have other monuments from the Seljuk period so we know what it looked like," he said. "Every period has a unique style."
Nearby, workers are painting centuries-old bricks and affixing decorative signs to the Green Dome, a 14th century funerary monument for a wealthy Turkish woman who died aged 24.
Tariq pointed out an extra letter on one sign -- a typo that in an earlier era might have provoked the wrath of a sultan.
And then there is the nearly 1,000-year-old tomb of the prophet Daniel. The Great Mosque nearby dates back seven centuries.
Both have undergone "conservation" and they look identical, their freshly painted white walls and plastic signs set against a backdrop of brown ruins.
But whatever damage is caused by such projects pales in comparison with the widespread looting of Iraq's antiquities after the 2003 US-led invasion, and that continues at some archaeological sites.
Security has improved in many parts of the country, however, and Iraq has begun to face the challenge of overzealous officials trying to develop tourism but ignoring the authorities.
Qais Hussein Rashid, chairman of the national board of antiquities, said Kirkuk is one of the few provinces in the country's fractured political landscape that is trying to follow the law.
"In Saddam's time we dealt with officials who had a primary school education. They didn't even know who Nebuchadnezzar or Hammurabi was," he said. "Now in some of these provinces we suffer from the same problem."
Last month the tourism and antiquities ministry ordered the northern province of Nineveh to halt work on an ancient Assyrian wall when it found out they were using stones cut with electric saws.
"It is absolutely forbidden to use modern materials on these sites," ministry spokesman Abdelzahra al-Talaqani said.
The government is also fuming over Babil province's management of the ancient site of Babylon and renting out parts of an adjacent palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein to tour operators.
"The governor of Babil, today, in the new Iraq, has taken over the ancient city," Rashid said.
Donny Youkhanna, a former director of Baghdad's national museum who has played a key role in the recovery of many of the thousands of looted artefacts, worries that tourism could trump preservation.
"Any archaeologist anywhere in the world will tell you he hates tourism," said Youkhanna, who fled Iraq in 2006 after receiving death threats and now teaches at Stony Brook University in New York.
"The governors of the provinces have money and they are often giving money for tourism projects without consulting archaeologists.
"They don't want the delay that they would have from the archaeologists, because we insist that everything should be done according to the book."
It could be the worst of both worlds: enough security to launch ill-conceived projects but not enough to bring back archaeologists and scholars, who have not had access to Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.
"Everybody used to come to Iraq to work and make excavations at the sites designated for them, or scholars would come to make studies and see the material at the museums," Youkhanna said.