- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

PARIS Professional thieves, likely organized outside Iraq, pillaged the nation's priceless ancient-history collections by using the cover of widespread looting and vault keys to make off with irreplaceable items, art experts and historians said yesterday.
The bandits were so efficient at emptying Iraqi libraries and museums that reports have already surfaced of artifacts appearing on the black market, some experts said. Certain thieves apparently knew exactly what they wanted from the invaluable Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections, and exactly where to find them.
"It looks as if part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action," said McGuire Gibson, president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad. "It really looks like a very professional job."
Mr. Gibson, a University of Chicago professor, was among 30 art experts and cultural historians assembled by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to assess the damage to Iraq's heritage in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.
In Washington, the FBI announced yesterday it had sent agents to Iraq to assist in recovering stolen antiquities.
"We are firmly committed to doing whatever we can to secure these treasures to the people of Iraq," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a news conference at the Justice Department.
But it remained unclear exactly what was gone and what survived the looting and thievery. With many museum records now in ashes and access to Iraq still cut off, it could take weeks or months to answer those questions.
Establishing a database was a key to finding out what had survived, and tracking down what was stolen, the experts said.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said some of the greatest treasures including gold jewelry of the Assyrian queens were placed in the vaults of the national bank after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. There was no information on whether those items remained inside.
The Iraq National Museum, one of the Middle East's most important archaeological repositories, was ransacked. But it was unknown whether one of its greatest treasures, tablets containing Hammurabi's Code, one of the earliest codes of law, was there when the looting began.
Although much of the looting was haphazard, experts said some of it was highly organized.
"They were able to obtain keys from somewhere for the vaults and were able to take out the very important, the very best material," Mr. Gibson said. "I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was."
Many at the meeting feared the stolen artifacts have been absorbed into highly organized trafficking rings that ferry the goods through a series of middlemen to collectors in Europe, the United States and Japan.
The FBI was cooperating with the international law enforcement organization Interpol in issuing alerts to all member nations to try to track any sales of the artifacts "on both the open and black markets," Mr. Muller said.
In advance of the war, Iraq's antiquities' authorities gathered artifacts from around the country and moved them to Baghdad's National Museum, assuming the museum would not be bombed, Mr. Gibson said.
"They did not count on the museum being looted," he said.
Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of Paris-based UNESCO, called yesterday for a U.N. resolution imposing a temporary embargo on trade in Iraqi antiquities. Such a resolution would also call for the return of such items to Iraq, he said.
"To preserve the Iraqi cultural heritage is, in a word, to enable Iraq to successfully make its transition to a new, free and prosperous society," the UNESCO chief said.
Much anger has been directed at U.S. troops, who stood by and watched as Iraq's treasures were carted off.
Three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee have resigned to protest the failure of U.S. forces to prevent the looting.
"The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction," committee Chairman Michael E. Sullivan wrote in his letter of resignation. He was joined in the protest by Richard S. Lanier and Gary Vikan.
Noting that American scholars had told the State Department about the location of Iraqi museums and historic sites in Iraq, Mr. Sullivan said the president "is burdened by a compelling moral obligation to plan for and try to prevent indiscriminate looting and destruction."
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the United States "in liberating Iraq worked very hard to protect infrastructure in Iraq and to preserve the valued resources of Iraq for the people of Iraq."
"It is unfortunate that there was looting and damage done," she said.

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