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Iraqi museum opens briefly to display recovered treasures

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Priceless gold jewelry from 900 B.C.—including large bracelets, necklaces and a crown inlaid with images of winged girls—went on display briefly Thursday as the Iraqi National Museum opened its doors for the first time since the war.

Journalists and diplomats were allowed into the museum to see the famous collection of Assyrian gold known as the Nimrud treasures, which hadn't been displayed since before the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. The museum won't open to the general public for months, and it's not certain whether the famous collection will be on display again then.

After Baghdad fell April 9, many feared that professional thieves or looters had stolen the Nimrud treasures and countless other artifacts. The Nimrud collection was found safely stored in a Central Bank vault in early June.

The looting of the museum created an international uproar. Early reports said 170,000 pieces were stolen. When the Nimrud treasures were found, U.S. occupation officials said the initial reports of the looting were overblown. Still, not all the artifacts have been recovered.

"There are still 32 pieces missing from the galleries and thousands of small items from the storeroom," said Donny George, the museum's director. "Every piece is evidence of history. But the wound that I had in my heart can start healing. It is important for people to know that this museum is coming back."

The Nimrud treasures came from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, close to what's now the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. A British archaeologist began excavating the site in 1845, and in 1988 an Iraqi archaeologist, Muzahim Muhmoud Hussein, discovered the gold treasures from 3,000 years ago.

Inside the museum's galleries were enormous stone sculptures, carved in 721 B.C. to 705 B.C., that once guarded the gates of Assyrian palaces and temples. Two 20-foot-high sculptures, human-headed bulls with wings, flanked the entrance to one gallery.

L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, decided to open the museum for a few hours to prove that some artifacts once feared gone have been recovered.

But not all of what happened when the museum was looted has been fully explained, and looting continues at important archaeological sites throughout the country.

Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, a former exile group that has been backed by civilians at the Pentagon, visited the museum and said the brief reopening was "a move toward normalcy." He said international officials should look more closely into the looting of the museum.

"The looting started long before the war started, and Saddam's family was involved. The pieces were sold before they were even stolen," he charged.

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

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

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