Iraqi museum celebrates return of stolen artifacts

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi National Museum on Sunday celebrated the return of some 700 artifacts that were looted following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and surfaced recently in neighboring Syria.

The items, which include 5,000-year-old stones inscribed with cuneiform and precious gold jewelry from the 19th century, were seized from traffickers by Syrian border guards, museum officials said. They represent only a fraction of the thousands of artifacts dating from the Stone Age to the Islamic Era that were stolen from Iraq's world-class collection during the war.

Syria held a ceremony last week to hand over the seized items to Iraqi officials. Museum officials showed off the items but said they'll remain under lock and key — like the other pieces remaining in the museum's collection — until security in Baghdad improves.

In the anarchic days that followed the U.S. invasion, looters besieged Iraq's national museum, an unassuming brick building in central Baghdad that housed what archaeologists called one of the world's foremost collections of Mesopotamian antiquities. The U.S. military faced intense criticism at the time for not doing enough to protect the priceless pieces.

U.S. officials who investigated the thefts have said that they were likely the work of well-organized criminals rather than random looters. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who led a U.S. military probe into the thefts, said last month that the trafficking of Iraqi antiquities was helping to finance Al Qaida in Iraq and Shiite Muslim militias such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Of some 15,000 stolen pieces, about 4,700 have been returned to the museum. Thousands more pieces have been seized by authorities in countries all over the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Iraqi officials praised Syria's cooperation and said they were in talks to retrieve items from the other countries.

"This initiative from Syria is a very positive one, and we wish that all neighboring countries will act in the same way," said Mohammed al-Oraibi, Iraq's minister for culture and archaeological affairs.

Museum officials said that another extremely valuable piece was seized recently by Syrian customs agents, and would be returned soon.

Muna Hassan Abbas, the museum's official in charge of retrieving stolen items, flew to Syria to help bring the 701 pieces back home. While none of them are extraordinary, she said, they spanned the breadth of the museum's collection — including stone plates inscribed with ancient Aramaic characters, Stone Age terra cotta figures, glazed jars and gold cylinder seals.

Many had museum serial numbers printed on them, making them easy to spot, Abbas said.

"Each piece is important," Abbas said, "and when you have 701 pieces together, you can say this is a very important thing."


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