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Thousands of artifacts recovered in Iraq

WASHINGTON—U.S. authorities said Wednesday more than 40,000 artifacts and manuscripts believed stolen from the Iraqi National Museum have been recovered, some of them from vaults where they had apparently been placed for safekeeping during the war.

Some of the museum's most valuable cultural treasures are still missing, but there is growing agreement that losses to the museum's vast 170,000-object collection might not be as bad as had initially been thought.

In addition to the items unearthed in vaults and storage areas, hundreds of items have been returned by Iraqis. U.S. officials are accepting the looted items at museum gates with no questions asked.

It is believed that many of the museum's artifacts were placed in storage to protect them from the heavy bombing by coalition forces.

The world-renowned museum in Baghdad was ransacked in the chaos surrounding the downfall of Saddam Hussein's government. Smashed pottery and empty display cases greeted returning museum employees, who feared that most of the ancient artwork, archeological remnants and inscribed clay tablets were either destroyed or gone. Many came from the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, the cradle of civilization.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in France this week for a meeting with Interpol on the plundered antiquities, said organized crime was probably to blame for any thievery.

"From the evidence that has emerged, there is a strong case to be made that the looting and theft of the artifacts were perpetrated by organized criminal groups—criminals who knew precisely what they were looking for," he said.

Officials with the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Enforcement said they are working with Iraqi curators to document the roughly 700 artifacts and 39,400 manuscripts recovered so far. The museum's records were destroyed in the looting, so it is difficult to know exactly what is missing.

Coalition forces were criticized for not doing more to protect the museum's holdings during the invasion of Baghdad but more recently have been active in the recovery effort. The military is working with Customs investigators from the United States, who have been sleeping on the floor of the museum to help protect against more looting.

U.S. military officials say they now believe only 10 percent to 15 percent of the museum's items were stolen.


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