Archaeologists are warning that another Gulf War would be catastrophic. History-changing discoveries could be lost forever through bombing and looting, they say.
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
Iraq is a cradle of civilisation with thousands of archaeological sites spanning more than 10,000 years.
At risk: The temple at Hatra
It is the birthplace of agriculture; the first great cities and empires were in Iraq, and the origins of writing have been traced to the region.
Babylon was built on the banks of the Euphrates, Baghdad University is one of the oldest seats of learning in the world and the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, is considered by some to the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth.
As part of its preparations for war, the Pentagon recently asked archaeologists to list sensitive locations in Iraq, but as one researcher put it: "the whole country is one big archaeological site".
Not a good mix
Because of the threat of war, archaeologists have recently ceased excavations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as in Iraq's major cities.
In fact, researchers from all over the Middle East are stopping excavations.
In a statement, the Archaeological Institute of America said it was "concerned that in the aftermath of war, Iraqi cultural objects may be removed from museums and archaeological sites".
Professor McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago, summed it up succinctly. "War and archaeology do not mix," he said.
The institute points out that Iraq's museums - particularly the national museum in Baghdad and the regional museum in Mosul - house irreplaceable sculptures, inscribed tablets, reliefs, cylinder seals and other cultural objects.
"The removal of such objects would cause irreparable losses to some of the world's most significant archaeological sites," it adds.
The institute urges all governments to follow the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention that seeks to protect cultural artefacts in times of conflict, and to protect ancient sites, monuments, antiquities, and cultural institutions in the case of war.
But the track record in the region is not encouraging.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, many unique sites were plundered or damaged and researchers left Iraq to work abroad.
During the conflict, the mighty ziggurat at Ur, one of the first cities, was bombed and damaged. In addition, prized antiquities were looted and sold illegally. In some cases, thieves plundered Assyrian wall frescoes and sculptures.
In January, archaeological curators, collectors and lawyers expressed their deep concern about the impact of another war, saying that sites "face a greater risk now than they did 10 years ago because of the greater American determination to topple Saddam Hussein".