Iraq displays hundreds of artifacts recovered after looting, including statue of Sumerian king

By Barbara Surk, AP
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Iraq displays hundreds of recovered artifacts

BAGHDAD — Iraq displayed hundreds of recovered artifacts Tuesday that were among the country’s looted heritage and span the ages from a 4,400-year-old statue of a Sumerian king to a chrome-plated AK-47 bearing Saddam Hussein’s image.

The 542 pieces are among the most recent artifacts recovered from a heartbreaking frenzy of looting at museums and archaeological sites after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and in earlier years of war and upheaval. The thefts swept a stunning array of priceless antiquities into the hands of collectors abroad.

So far, 5,000 items stolen since 2003 have been recovered. And culture officials said they hoped the display would encourage more nations to cooperate in the search for 15,000 pieces still missing from the Iraqi National Museum, one of the sites worst-hit by looters after the fall of Baghdad seven years ago.

The director of the National Museum, Amira Alawan, praised the international community for helping Iraq find and recover its cultural heritage. But he said not all countries are cooperating, naming Spain and Lebanon as among the nations that have refused to hand over missing Iraqi artifacts.

The items displayed at the Foreign Ministry included relics of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

The most prominent was the headless statue of a king from the ancient Sumerian civilization, which is more than 4,000 years old. It was discovered in the 1920s at the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq and was stolen from the National Museum.

The FBI listed its theft among the world’s top 10 art crimes. Experts say the statue, carved from black diorite with cuneiform inscriptions along the back and the shoulders, is the oldest known representation of an Iraqi monarch.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security located the statue in the United States in May 2006 and handed it over to Iraqi diplomats in Washington two months later.

Among the newest pieces of Iraq’s recovered past was a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl hand grip and a small image of Saddam next to the gun sight. It was taken from Iraq to the U.S. as a war trophy by an American solider who found the rifle during a 2007 raid in Baghdad.

“Today is a celebration in Iraq. This is bringing back the civilization and the cultural heritage of Iraq,” said Mohammed Muhsen Ali, deputy director of the National Museum.

Iraqi and world culture officials have for years struggled to retrieve looted treasures but with little success.

The U.S. military was heavily criticized for not protecting the National Museum’s trove of relics and art after Baghdad’s fall in 2003. Thieves ransacked the collection, stealing or destroying priceless artifacts that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.

The display also included more than 5,000-year-old cylindrical seals used by the Sumerians to seal written documents and a centuries-old pair of golden earrings from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, just south of the present day northern city of Mosul.

The earrings were discovered in 1988 under the floor of a palace belonging to an Assyrian king. They were stolen from the National Museum two years later and found at an auction house in New York in 2009.

The latest recoveries, made over the past five years, were hailed as a great achievement by government officials who vowed to continue the battle to reclaim looted artifacts.

“We will not stop,” said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “We will continue our efforts in order to return the last precious pieces to their legitimate owners.”

Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. Samir Shakir Sumaida’ie told reporters at the event that more than 600 pieces have also been unaccounted for since last year when they were transported by the American military from the U.S. to Baghdad and delivered to the office of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“We have confirmation from the U.S. military that the pieces that include mostly cylindrical seals reached the prime minister’s office last year, but until now we have no information on their current location,” Sumaida’ie said.

The prime minister’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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