Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Iraq Museum Reclaims 700 Stolen Artifacts

By Bushra Juhi in Baghdad, Iraq Associated Press
April 28, 2008

Iraq's National Museum on Sunday welcomed the return of more than 700 antiquities stolen during the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion five years ago.

Golden necklaces, daggers, clay statues, pots, and other artifacts were displayed briefly during a ceremony attended by Syrian and Iraqi officials.

Syrian authorities seized the items from traffickers over the years and handed custody last week to an Iraqi delegation in Damascus.

Mohammad Abbas al-Oreibi, Iraq's acting state minister of tourism and archaeology who led the negotiations with Syria, said he plans to visit Jordan soon to persuade its authorities to turn over more than 150 items.

"This was a positive initiative taken by Syria, and we wish the same initiative to be taken by all neighboring countries," he said.

"The treasures contain very important and valuable pieces."

7,000 Years of History

Looting broke out in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities following Saddam's ouster in April 2003.

Museums were ransacked and thousands of items taken, dealing a harsh blow to collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians.

Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures with little success.

Between 3,000 to 7,000 pieces are still believed missing, including about 40 to 50 that are considered to be of great historic importance, Laurent Levi-Strauss of the U.N. cultural body UNESCO said last month.

Artifacts have been recovered before, but Hassan said Syria was the first country to return such a large quantity of stolen antiquities, and officials hoped others would follow its lead.

Syria has said it arrested some of the antiquities traffickers but did not provide more details. The items recovered by Syria were packed in 17 boxes and flown back to Baghdad on Saturday, according to Dr. Muna Hassan, the head of a committee working to restore the artifacts.

The head of the Syrian Antiquities Department, Bassam Jamous, said some of the objects were from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era.

Hassan declined to put an exact value on the trove, saying only that the items were collectively worth millions of dollars.

Museum Remains Closed

Hassan said negotiations were underway with several other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Italy for the return of more looted antiquities.

For Iraqis, the museum is an important reminder of their cultural heritage. However, the facility remains closed to the public due to violence, lack of security, and the poor condition of the building.

(See related photo gallery: "Iraq Museum Still Too Damaged to Reopen" [March 19, 2008].)

The U.S. military was intensely criticized for not protecting the National Museum's treasure of ancient relics and art in the weeks after Baghdad's capture, when looters roamed the city looking for anything of value.

Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases and pilfered, or just destroyed, their contents.

The sale of stolen antiquities has allegedly helped finance Iraqi extremist groups, according to Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the U.S. investigator who led the initial probe into the looting.

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