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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Confusion Prevailing as Iraq's Treasures Looted

WASHINGTON -- More than 2 1/2 years after looters sacked Baghdad's National Museum, Iraqi authorities and police forces throughout the world are still searching for thousands of stolen items, including a handful of the most famous artifacts in history.

U.S. military sources say forces in Iraq have no systematic way of investigating the missing objects, and with the ongoing insurgency neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces can justify using scarce manpower to guard sites in the countryside.

U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, charged with recovering the museum treasures in the six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, eventually counted about 14,000 lost items, of which about 5,500 have been recovered.

"I teach about it all the time," said art historian Zainab Bahrani of New York's Columbia University, recalling the missing Sumerian black statue of Eannatum, prince of Lagash. "I explain why it is important, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'It's gone, ... it's gone.'"

Bogdanos has compiled the accepted "top 40" list of the most famous pieces stolen from the National Museum. Fifteen have been recovered, including the Sumerian vase of Warka, the mask of Warka and an Assyrian wheeled firebox made of bronze. The Akkadian Bassetki statue, of a boy cast in copper, was found in November 2003 at the bottom of a Baghdad cesspool.

Since Bogdanos departed Iraq, U.S. forces no longer have a systematic way to search for artifacts, and the effort has devolved upon an assortment of organizations, including, among many others, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Interpol, the FBI and cylinder-seal experts at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

Still, there appears to be no disagreement that looting continues. Until recently, what little evidence there was came from risky field trips by journalists, military reports from the Iraqi hinterland and the occasional helicopter flyover.

Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York, however, has been leading an effort to compare "before and after" satellite photographs of well-known sites in southern Iraq, and has found holes "denser than Swiss cheese."

Stone suggested that somewhere "there are warehouses bulging at the seams," waiting for vigilance to relax and laws to expire. New York lawyer William Pearlstein thinks the artifacts are traveling to "virtually unregulated" markets in the Persian Gulf states.

DePaul University's Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law, believes the sanctions may have forced thieves to make a cost-benefit calculation. "It will be too dangerous for collectors to buy the well-known items," she said, and not worth the risk for smugglers to sell the cheap stuff.