The United States has pledged to recover and repair the priceless antiquities looted from Iraq's national museum in the wake of the entry of US troops.
An Iraqi reads papers in Baghdad's ransacked national museum
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Baghdad museum was "one of the great museums in the world" and that the US would take a leading role in restoring it.
Coalition forces were criticised for not protecting the institution, which housed many treasures from "the cradle of civilisation", when it was ransacked on Friday.
The world's foremost experts on Iraqi heritage will gather for an emergency meeting on Thursday to count the cost of the looting of the country's cultural sites.
Mr Powell said the US would secure the museum and would work with organisations like the European Union and the United Nations' cultural arm, Unesco, in restoring it.
The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities
US Secretary of State
The US would "recover that which has been taken and also participate in restoring that which has been broken", he said.
"The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general but this museum in particular," he said.
He was responding to a plea from Unesco to protect cultural sites before any further damage was done.
But the loss and destruction already suffered has been described as "a disaster" by Unesco.
As well as the national museum in Baghdad, a museum in Mosul was looted and the capital's Islamic Library, which housed ancient manuscripts including one of the oldest surviving copies of the Koran, was ravaged by fire.
The archaeology experts will take stock of what was at Iraq's cultural sites, and what has survived, during Thursday's meeting at the Unesco headquarters in Paris.
Unesco's assistant director general of culture Mounir Bouchenaki sounded one note of optimism, saying some of the museum's most important pieces may have been packed and moved before the outbreak of war.
"The second item in our agenda is to prepare a strategy for the intervention and rehabilitation of the cultural heritage of Iraq," he said.
Another meeting will be held at the British Museum in London on 29 April.
Unesco is appealing to governments to give financial support for the recovery process.
Italy is the first nation to donate money for heritage rebuilding, pledging $400,000 (£254,000).
It's too late. It's no use. It's no use
Iraqi state board of
The national museum was home to artefacts that dated back 10,000 years, from one of the world's earliest civilisations.
The development of writing, abstract counting, the wheel and agriculture were all charted in its exhibitions.
The collections from the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian periods were particularly prized.
Remains of the Mesopotamian cities Babylon, Ur and Nineveh were among the pieces on show.
Antiquities included a 4,000-year-old silver harp from Ur, plus tablets and pottery from across the ages.
'History of mankind'
Despite Mr Powell's assurances, there are fears that many objects may be lost for ever.
After the 1991 Gulf War, 4,000 pieces disappeared when regional museums were looted.
Donny George, director of research and discoveries for the state board of
antiquities, said: "It was the leading collection of a... continuous history of mankind.
"And it's gone, and it's lost. If Marines had started before, none of this would have
"It's too late. It's no use. It's no use."