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Probe of missing Baghdad art hampered by ties to Saddam

BAGHDAD _With about a week to go before he leaves Baghdad, the chief investigator of looting at the National Museum of Antiquities on Sunday released a list of 38 missing items, including a 5,000-year-old Sacred Vase of Warca and a 4,000-year-old statue from the Old Babylonian period.

And as hundreds of museum workers returned Saturday and Sunday for a $20 emergency payment to tide them over until their salaries resume, investigators said the probe has been hampered by suspicions that the museum's top leaders had ties to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"I know that both the affiliation and the perceived affiliation with the prior regime have hindered our investigation," said Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the deputy director of the anti-terrorist Joint Inter-Agency Coordination Group. That is an 80-member task force of FBI, CIA, DEA, former Customs officials and others formed by U.S. Central Command after Sept. 11, 2001.

The issues at the museum echo similar concerns about corruption throughout the country, as new political leaders, interim government officials and others talk of "De-Baathification" and how to repair a patronage system that has been totally loyal to Saddam for decades.

The museum's administrative offices have been stripped bare, a scene of "absolute wanton destruction," officials said.

"Every single office, the door is kicked in. Every single office, the desk is turned over. Every single office, display cases are smashed, papers are strewn everywhere, videotape is pulled out," said Bogdanos, who is also a New York City prosecutor and a student of classical antiquities. "Most of the anger was manifested in the administrative offices and not in the museum."

Many of the workers, already unhappy at not being able to enter the museum in recent weeks to collect their wages, insisted some of the museum's deputy directors were the only ones with keys and were, therefore, suspect, because the thieves opened a safe without damaging it. The workers also charged that the brother of one of the museum deputy directors was Saddam's minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

"All those people who are inside now, they are responsible for stealing these things," charged Laith Al-Sanduq, 45, a manager of planning for the museum who said he used to be the museum's general manager and minister of culture.

Bogdanos would not confirm rumors and accusations, saying he did not want to cut off any avenues of investigation, which he described primarily as a recovery effort.

But, he said, "all sorts of people have been coming forward and telling us that they're turning this over to the U.S. forces for safekeeping for ultimate return to the Iraqi people, and they specifically tell us they are not turning this stuff over to the museum staff. They have told us this time and time again."

Among the more significant items returned are two slender vases from about 3000 B.C. and Bogdanos' favorite, a red ochre pottery vase from Hassuna that dates to 5000 B.C.

Still to be recovered or accounted for are treasures such as a necklace of agate beads, a marble statue of a goddess holding a palm frond and a decorated wooden door from the 12th century A.D.

Alaa Al-Dabakg, a museum surveyor, eyed the broken glass and dusty corridors as he came to pick up a crisp $20 bill, handed out by the museum's payroll manager to permanent museum workers with identification. "It is enough pocket money for 10 days," Al-Dabakg said.

He will have to return regularly to sign his name to show that he is still interested in getting his job back. "It doesn't bother me to come every day or every week to sign. I am at home, with nothing to do."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): missingart

Iraq

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