Friday, June 3, 2005

NEW YORK — Roughly half of the 15,000 items looted from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003 have been recovered, said its director, who thanked American officials for assistance in restoring the building.

Archaeologist and museum director Donny George said law-enforcement and customs officials in the United States had intercepted at least 1,000 artifacts stolen from the museum in the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad.

Another 3,000 or so artifacts have been found and secured in Jordan, Syria, Italy and other nations, said the museum director, an Iraqi-born Christian. However, he said, the governments of Iran and Turkey — both neighbors with porous land borders — have failed to respond to legal and diplomatic inquiries.

Many stolen Iraqi artifacts or their counterfeits still are advertised on EBay and change hands through channels known to collectors. U.S. law-enforcement and customs agencies say they are on the lookout for antiquities but cannot provide current information on interceptions or prosecutions.

U.S. troops, journalists and contractors returning from Iraq are among those who have been caught with forbidden souvenirs — mostly paintings and small seals and cylinders that can be carved exquisitely and hidden easily.

“We are grateful to our friends and dear brothers” for intercepting the artifacts, Mr. George said Tuesday evening during a slide presentation to the National Arts Club in New York.

Much of Baghdad was plunged into chaos after U.S. troops captured the capital on April 9, 2003. As Iraqi troops fled, looters and professional thieves quickly overran the museum, which was left unguarded.

Mr. George — like many Iraqis and much of the American press — blamed U.S. military planners at the time for ignoring the history and culture of the country they had come to liberate.

But the museum director was much more conciliatory at the National Arts Club, where he told a well-heeled audience that he was “satisfied” with the level of financial and technical support to rebuild the shattered museum.

Asked whether the Pentagon had offered an apology for failing to guard the museum, Mr. George said U.S. assistance allowed his staff to rebuild the museum’s offices and galleries, install new security systems and create computer networks where there had been none.

“I will take that as an apology,” he said.

Mr. George, the director of research for the State Board of Antiquities under Saddam Hussein, was installed as director of the National Museum of Iraq by the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority that governed the country from early 2003 until last summer.

He remained in that post under the interim government and has been retained by the transitional government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He also has the support of the international antiquities specialists.

“He’s a real professional, one of the archaeologists in the Middle East,” said McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute who visited Iraq’s museum and archaeological sites in 2003 for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the National Geographic Society.

Mr. George said much of the thievery was done by insiders, but told The Washington Times this week that Iraqi and museum authorities have made little effort to find the culprits.

“I am asking [U.S. investigators] to tell me who they have caught,” he said with a shrug.

The museum is trying to establish a database of the looted artifacts, in part to make them more difficult to sell. The FBI, Interpol and many museums also have put up images of the missing artifacts.

In the meantime, Mr. George said, he has asked governments to document and hold on to what they intercept until Iraq is more stable.

Thousands of missing pieces are presumed to be inside Iraq, where a corps of mostly untrained volunteers has been scouring markets in search of the missing antiquities.

The museum also has been fortified with tall concrete walls and welded gates that enclose the galleries, but Mr. George said it is not safe to reopen the doors to visitors.

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