Stolen artifacts are returned to Iraq
Museum pillaged following chaos of '03 invasion
BAGHDAD - Iraq's National Museum yesterday welcomed the return of more than 700 antiquities stolen during the chaos that followed the US-led invasion five years ago.
Golden necklaces, daggers, clay statues, pots, and other artifacts were displayed briefly during a ceremony attended by Syrian and Iraqi officials. Syrian authorities seized the items from traffickers over the years and handed custody of them last week to an Iraqi delegation in Damascus.
Mohammad Abbas al-Oreibi, Iraq's acting state minister of tourism and archaeology who led the negotiations with Syria, said he plans to visit Jordan soon to try to persuade its authorities to turn over more than 150 items.
"This was a positive initiative taken by Syria, and we wish the same initiative to be taken by all neighboring countries," he said. "The treasures contain very important and valuable pieces."
Looting broke out in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities following Saddam's ouster in April 2003. The museums were ransacked and thousands of items taken, dealing a harsh blow to collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians.
Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures with little success. There are 3,000 to 7,000 pieces believed missing, including about 40 to 50 that are considered to be of great historic importance, Laurent Levi-Strauss of the UN cultural body UNESCO said last month.
Artifacts have been recovered before, but Dr. Muna Hassan, the head of a committee working to restore the artifacts, said Syria was the first country to return such a large quantity of stolen antiquities, and officials hoped others would follow its lead.
Syria has said it arrested some of the antiquities traffickers, but did not provide more details.
The items recovered by Syria were packed in 17 boxes and flown back to Baghdad on Saturday, according to Hassan. Hassan declined to put an exact value on the trove, saying only that the items were collectively worth millions of dollars.
Dr. Emina Idan, the head of state board of antiquities and heritage, said 701 pieces were returned. The head of the Syrian Antiquities Department, Bassam Jamous, said some of the objects were from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era.
Hassan said negotiations were underway with several other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Italy for the return of more looted antiquities.
For Iraqis, the museum is an important reminder of their cultural heritage. But the facility remains closed to the public because of the violence, lack of security, and poor condition of the site.
The US military was criticized for not protecting the National Museum's ancient relics and art in the weeks after Baghdad's capture, when looters roamed the city.