BAGHDAD -- The expansion of a military base may have damaged the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, and the US-led coalition's leaders said yesterday that they have halted construction and ordered an investigation.
L. Paul Bremer III, Iraq's US administrator, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US military official there, dispatched a team of archeologists May 27 to examine construction at the Polish military's Camp Alpha, which was set up last year to secure the ruins from looters, a coalition statement said.
The remains of Babylon, one of the world's most important archeological sites, were occupied since the early days of the invasion by US Marines and, since September, soldiers from Poland and other countries. Babylon is 50 miles south of Baghdad.
The two occupation leaders ordered all contractors working in or around the Babylon site to halt construction and excavation related to the expansion of the base -- and any other work that could damage the ancient sites, a coalition spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.
Sanchez and Bremer also ordered that planning begin for the relocation of troops in the immediate area. The orders were issued June 1 and 2, the spokeswoman said.
Investigators reported there ''might possibly have already been some damage" and that any further expansion of the Polish-run base would infringe on the archeological site, the spokeswoman said.
Polish military officials said they were unaware of the investigation or any damage and that great care had been taken to secure and protect the ruins.
There was ''superficial" work done two months ago to expand a helicopter landing zone to accommodate US troops housed at the site, said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, a Polish Army spokesman.
''The superficial work was done under archeological supervision, and there was no deep digging involved," Strzelecki said.
He said soldiers are warned about ''grave consequences for picking up the tiniest stone." Strzelecki said the division has documented the state in which the base and archeological site were inherited on Sept. 3.
''From that point on, we take responsibility for what took place," Strzelecki said.
The investigating team included two Polish archaeologists and an Iraqi from the state board of antiquities, along with the coalition's senior adviser for culture and a consultant, the spokeswoman said.
Babylon's main sites -- the Ishtar Gate, the ruins of Babylon, and the Nebuchadnezzar Palace -- are in a separate area on the camp's perimeter, run by Iraqi officials as an archeological park open to paying visitors, said Major Slawomir Walenczykowski of the Polish-led multinational division.
''We are totally taken by surprise by the report. We are not aware of any investigation or any visit by archeological experts," Walenczykowski said. ''There is no construction going on at the camp right now."
Strzelecki said soldiers are warned about ''grave consequences for picking up the tiniest stone."
He said the base appears to be the only one with special archaeological advisers to the commanding general.
During the US-led invasion, looters raided Babylon's two museums, stealing display copies of ancient relics and a few original pieces.
Most of the original relics were housed at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which was also heavily looted.
Some 13,000 objects from the Iraq Museum are still missing, according to the museum's website.
For more than 1,000 years, Babylon was one of the world's premier cities, where Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and to which the Hebrews were deported after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem about 586 B.C.
The city declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great around 538 B.C.
Saddam Hussein also put his mark on Babylon, stamping his own name into the bricks used in the 1980s reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar's palace walls, the seat of the king's ancient empire.
Some of the mud bricks in the original wall carried the seal of Nebuchadnezzar. The bricks used in the Hussein reconstruction read:
''The City of Babylon was reconstructed during the era of the victorious Saddam Hussein, President of the Republic, protector of the great Iraq, the modernizer of its renaissance and builder of its civilization."