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U.S. journalists, servicemen caught trying to smuggle Iraqi war souvenirs

WASHINGTON—Some members of the media are returning from Iraq with more than just war stories.

Several journalists and a U.S. serviceman have been caught trying to slip paintings, gold-plated assault weapons and other war souvenirs into the United States. Some of the booty was pilfered from Iraq's presidential palaces.

None of the items recovered by U.S. Customs officials came from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad where large numbers of historical artifacts were looted in the chaos following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. An international investigation is under way to recover those artifacts, a few of which are considered priceless relics of early civilization.

The recovered items on display in Washington on Wednesday included garish paintings of Saddam and his two sons.

Officials with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that while the historical value of the items was negligible they could have fetched a substantial sum in the United States because they came from Saddam's palaces.

"These goods are rightfully the property of the people of Iraq," said Gordon England, deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.

Fifteen paintings and other items were recovered at Dulles Airport in Virginia, Logan Airport in Boston and Heathrow Airport in London. The items discovered at Heathrow—a gold-plated AK-47, ornamental swords, knives and a cache of other weapons—were on their way to Fort Stewart, Ga., apparently shipped by a U.S. serviceman, authorities said.

One person has been charged, and authorities say the investigation is ongoing.

Benjamin J. Johnson, an engineer for Fox News Channel, tried to bring 12 paintings and 40 Iraqi monetary bonds and other items through Dulles Airport on April 17, according to a criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Johnson, 27, of Alexandria, Va., initially told Customs officials that he had only $20 in cigarettes to declare but authorities noted that his hands were shaking and he began to "sweat profusely." A search of Johnson's luggage uncovered a large cardboard box that contained 12 paintings. He first told authorities that Baghdadis had given him the paintings but later admitted that he had taken some from the palace of Saddam's son Odai. Johnson is charged with smuggling and making false statements.

In a statement, Fox News said Johnson, who worked for the network for six years as a satellite truck engineer, had been fired.

In Boston, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald reporter who was caught returning from Kuwait on April 19 with a looted Iraqi painting, a wall ornament and other items. Crittenden declared the items and cooperated with authorities.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.