Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Iraqi Treasures Return, but Questions Remain

By STEVEN LEE MYERS New York Times BAGHDAD — Iraq announced on Tuesday the return of hundreds of looted antiquities that had ended up in the United States, even as a senior official disclosed that 632 pieces repatriated last year and turned over to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki were now unaccounted for. The latest trove reflects not only a history dating from the world’s oldest civilizations but also a more recent and tortured history of war, looting and international smuggling that began under Saddam Hussein, accelerated after the American occupation and continues at archaeological sites to this day. The returned items include a 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum here after the American invasion in 2003; an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990s and seized before an auction at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets smuggled out of Iraq that were seized by the American authorities in 2001 and were being stored in the World Trade Center when it was destroyed. There was also a more recent relic: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Mr. Hussein, taken by an American soldier as booty and displayed at Fort Lewis, Wash. Kitsch, certainly, but priceless in its own way. While Iraqi officials celebrated the repatriation of what they called invaluable relics — “the return of Iraq’s heritage to our house,” as the state minister of tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, put it — the fate of those previously returned raised questions about the country’s readiness to preserve and protect its own treasures. Appearing at a ceremony displaying the artifacts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, pointedly said a previous shipment of antiquities had been returned to Iraq last year aboard an American military aircraft authorized by Gen. David H. Petraeus, only to end up missing. “They went to the prime minister’s office, and that was the last time they were seen,” said Mr. Sumaidaie, who has worked fervently with American law enforcement officials in recent years to track down loot that had found its way into the United States. It was not immediately clear what happened, and Mr. Sumaidaie said he had tried and failed to find out. He did not directly accuse Mr. Maliki’s government of malfeasance, but he expressed frustration that the efforts to repatriate works of art and antiquities had resulted in such confusion and mystery. Ali al-Mousawi, a government spokesman, demanded that the American government account for the artifacts since an American military aircraft delivered them. “We didn’t receive anything,” he said in a telephone interview. Mr. Jibouri, one of Mr. Maliki’s advisers, said that if the relics were not somewhere in the prime minister’s custody, then they would probably be with the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the country’s museums. Its spokesman declined to comment. Amira Edan, the director of the National Museum, said none of the objects had been returned to her collection, which is where, she said, they all belonged. Mr. Jibouri said a committee would be formed to investigate. Perhaps with this uncertainty in mind, Mr. Jibouri and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari publicly signed documents transferring custody of the latest batch of artifacts — which arrived in Baghdad on Monday, packed in wooden crates, aboard a specially chartered aircraft — to the museum. “The artifacts are what’s pushing us to build the present and future, so we deserve this great heritage,” Mr. Zebari said during the ceremony. The United States has returned 1,046 antiquities since 2003, when looters ransacked buildings across Iraq, including its museums, according to the American Embassy here. For all the international outrage the looting stirred toward the United States and its allies, many of the items were smuggled out of the country before the invasion, often with the connivance of officials in Saddam Hussein’s government, according to archaeological officials here. They have been tracked and seized by the F.B.I., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and other law enforcement agencies, often working on tips from experts and officials with the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, which stored many of them at its building on Massachusetts Avenue for safekeeping as Iraq remained engulfed in violence. Only a handful of the items returned on Tuesday once belonged to the National Museum. The most prominent is the statue of King Entemena, the oldest known representation of a monarch from the ancient civilizations that once thrived in Mesopotamia. Carved from black diorite, it is 30 inches tall and headless, and inscribed with cuneiform that says it was placed in a temple in Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to please the god Enlil. It weighs 330 pounds but disappeared from the museum during the looting, only to be seized in a 2006 sting when someone in Syria tried to sell it to an art dealer in New York. Another Sumerian sculpture, a bronze depicting a king named Shulgi, had been shipped by Federal Express from a London dealer to a collector in Connecticut, but was seized at Newark Liberty International Airport. Many such pieces are items that Iraq never knew it had lost. Iraq has 12,000 known archaeological sites where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities — and later Islamic cities — once stood. Many are unprotected, and have been badly looted for years, especially during the bloodiest years of war in 2006 and 2007. A special police force created in 2008 has yet to fill its ranks, mired at its inception by the government’s bureaucracy and a lack of support for cultural preservation. The National Museum, which officially reopened last year though many of its galleries remain closed and in disrepair, has recovered roughly half of 15,000 pieces that were looted from its collection. All told, Iraqi officials say they have confiscated and returned to government property more than 30,000 antiquities and artworks since 2003, from inside and outside Iraq. The museum can hold only a fraction of those. “We can make 15 museums like the one we had,” its deputy director, Muhsin Hassan Ali, said on Tuesday. The ultimate fate of the Saddam Hussein AK-47 also remains unclear, though it too was signed over to the custody of the National Museum. “Some material belongs to the fourth millennium B.C.,” Ms. Edan, the museum’s director, said laughing, “and the new ones belong to Saddam’s Iraq.” The assault rifle ended up at the headquarters of the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it had been taken “legally via official Army channels with the intent of placing it in a military museum as a war trophy.” Agents confiscated it after Mr. Sumaidaie’s aides read about it in a local newspaper report. A factory in Iraq once produced AK-47s, including some plated in gold and chrome, which Mr. Hussein distributed as gifts. At the time the rifle was recovered, a special agent of ICE in New York, Peter J. Smith, called it “a priceless symbol of Iraqi history.”

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