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After long journey, Iraqi treasures returning home

By Heather Yamour (with photos) WASHINGTON, Sept 18 (KUNA) -- After a "long and treacherous journey," 1,046 priceless treasures of ancient Mesopotamia will be returned to Iraq after US officials handed over a large cache of artifacts pilfered from Iraq's National Museum and excavation sites.
At a ceremony at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie accepted the items on behalf of the Iraqi people from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
"This is a very happy occasion for us. We are retrieving some of the treasures of our ancestors. And this is not only something that is important for Iraq, it is really a record of the beginnings of civilization for humanity. These items, although they are small, they are very, very big in our eyes," said Sumaidaie.
Handing off the items was the head of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Myers.
"It is a very high honor on behalf of the people of the United States of America to be able to formally return over a thousand artifacts back to the people of Iraq. After a long and treacherous journey in many cases, they are finally being returned home," said Myers.
The items, sent by Customs officials, arrived in 16 cardboard boxes late last week to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, where they were catalogued and photographed one-by-one.
Since the mid-1990s, experts say thousands of antiquities have been smuggled out of Iraq and sold to buyers in Europe and the United States. The number spiked in 2003 after Baghdad's National Museum was ransacked and an estimated 15,000 items were taken at the start of the war.
Iraqi officials had blamed the pilfering on organized smugglers and foreign soldiers. With cooperation from other countries and Iraqi citizens, the Iraqi government said more than half the items looted from museums have been returned, mainly intact.
Although the 1,046 repatriated artifacts will soon return to Baghdad's museum, archeologists and officials fear many thousands more remain on the market undetected, snatched from the 10,000 poorly guarded archeological sites all over Iraq.
"What worries us is the looting from the excavation sites, those items are very difficult to retrieve," Sumaidaie told KUNA. "If an item is not catalogued at the time it is found, you do not know from which site, you do not know how it relates to other items, you lose the context ,and the loss is greater." With little security at excavation sites and guards subject to bribes and corruption, officials say the task of preserving Iraq's cultural antiquities is very difficult, and the ability to detail the extent of the looting almost impossible.
Iraqi, US and European cultural officials have been working on a legal framework to retrieve undocumented Iraqi items, often claiming to be from another country of origin, like Syria.
In 2004, the United States imposed restrictions over archeological and ethnological artifacts from Iraq, banning ceramic, stone, metal, glass and other cultural property from Iraq under the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities act.
"Monitoring whenever we can, wherever we can, auction houses, catalogues and transactions made in public, we will intervene when there is an object that is from Iraq," the ambassador relayed to KUNA.
The objects include hand-blown glass tear jars taken from an ancient Sassainian grave excavated in Najaf; a praying god figuring that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple; and a detailed copper foundation figurine dating back to 2400 BC taken from an ancient temple in Tell Al-Hiba in southeastern Iraq. They detail the Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian era that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization of ancient Mesopotamia.
The items, many of which were submitted for bid at prestigious auction houses in New York City, were seized in four separate investigations by US Customs officials in 2001 and 2003. They were then authenticated by experts at New York University and other academic institutions.
One such expert, archeologist John Russell, a professor of Massachusetts College of Art, helped US authorities identify stolen Iraq antiques after working in an excavation site of the Assyrian King Sennecherib's palace in Iraq's Nineveh province.
Since the mid-1990s, Russell noticed pieces taken from the palace being sold on the market, noting then "the market, the demand and the poverty in southern Iraq, triggered it," he said. Despite international sanctions against it, a lot of the items were trafficked into the United States.
Despite success in retrieving the items, none of the individuals caught attempting to smuggle or sell the artifacts faced criminal charges. Customs officials said the objects were mostly forfeited voluntarily by unwitting smugglers, and they are therefore less likely to face criminal charges.
"Sometimes the person who gets the item, they just don't know any better," according to Gary Kozlusky of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's International Affairs office.
While investigations try to keep close watch on dubious dealers and auctioneers in an effort to uncover more findings, Sumaidaie explained that both the US and Iraqi governments are often limited in cracking down on traffickers.
"We cannot do very much. It is hard to prove intent, so there is a higher level of proof required, and it is difficult to prove that in a court of law," explained Sumaidaie. (end) hy.ema KUNA 180959 Sep 08NNNN