- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Teams of agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), working with U.S. military authorities in Iraq, have recovered nearly 700 artifacts and located 39,400 manuscripts missing from the National Museum in Baghdad.”The recovery of these items was the direct result of a superb, cooperative effort between U.S. law enforcement, the U.S. military and the Iraqi people,” said ICE acting Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia. “While we are pleased with the results thus far, there is clearly more work to be done.”ICE agents will continue hunting down looted Iraqi artifacts both at home and abroad,” he said.The National Museum in Baghdad had contained one of the Middle East’s leading archaeological collections, holding millennia-old artwork and other items from the Tigris-Euphrates valley, where many of mankind’s innovations began. ICE Spokesman Ronald K. Bell said the bureau, part of the new Department of Homeland Security, deployed teams of agents to the Middle East at the request of the U.S. Central Command before hostilities began in Iraq. The agents, he said, were embedded with U.S. military units and used in a variety of investigative operations.After reports of looting from Iraqi museums first surfaced, Mr. Bell said the agents proposed an art recovery effort with the U.S. military, and several teams promptly began working with Iraqi art curators to catalogue the missing items.The agents also began sleeping in the museum at night to assist the U.S. military in protecting the museum from further looting, he said, adding that the agents and military personnel also began a campaign to prompt the return of looted items and to demonstrate America’s resolve to restore them to the Iraqi people.That campaign included potential rewards and amnesty for anyone voluntarily returning artifacts and, Mr. Bell said, U.S. authorities — led by Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Bogdanos — soon began receiving the missing items.As the campaign progressed, he said, agents developed Iraqi sources with information on the location of other missing artifacts. They soon learned that many missing items had been stored for safekeeping in hidden vaults prior to the start of hostilities, he said.Mr. Bell said the agents and military officials have located or breached several of the vaults over the past few days and recovered missing artifacts. At a few sites, he said, agents found evidence that some high-value pieces had been stolen. Other locations believed to contain more of the missing items have been identified and are expected to be searched soon.Working with the U.S. military, Mr. Bell said the agents also developed sources who provided leads about missing Iraqi artifacts, some of which had been routed to foreign nations and others that were being offered for sale in Iraq. He said the agents are actively pursuing those leads.Without a computerized inventory of its items, Mr. Bell said the Iraqi National Museum has been able to positively confirm only a small number of high-value artifacts as missing or stolen. He said the agents and military officials are continuing to catalogue the confirmed missing items.Last month, ICE initiated Operation Iraqi Heritage to identify cultural items looted from Iraq, detain and seize the items, authenticate their value, and prosecute those involved.On Tuesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft told members of Interpol at a conference in Lyon, France, that organized thieves looted the museums of Iraq, stealing specifically targeted art and historic objects. He said authorities believe many of the items were taken out of the country.The two-day conference was called to create a database of the missing artwork and antiquities-law-enforcement agencies worldwide could use it in tracking the objects down. Authorities remain uncertain as to who carried out the thefts, how organized the looting may have been and how many pieces are missing.”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,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “Although the criminals who committed the theft may have transported the objects beyond Iraq’s borders, they should know they have not escaped the reach of justice,” he said.

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