The cultural world was outraged at the massive looting of Iraqi museums and historic sites that took place in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Libraries were set on fire, statues were smashed and priceless cultural treasures were stolen. Iraq's cultural leaders say the looting continues despite safeguards put into place since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Iraqi cultural officials say the looting of museums has stopped. But they say robbers continue to move from province to province plundering archeological sites. Director of museums, Donny George Youkhanna, says as many as 15,000 objects disappeared from Iraq's museums and cultural sites. He says all are of historic importance, but some were of particular significance.
"The small piece of ivory, the Nubian and the lioness, this is one of the extraordinary pieces," he said. "We have lost the statue of the Sumerian king Antemena. This might be one of the oldest statues actually having the name of a king on it, mentioning that this is a king on it, in the history of mankind. That piece is lost."
Thousands of other objects were returned or captured by either international police or guards belonging to a new federal protection system. Some items, undoubtedly, were stolen by poor people looking for a way to make money. But officials found clear signs, including glass cutters and keys, that much of the theft at the museums was planned ahead of time by knowledgeable people.
"Some people who entered the storerooms of the antiques knew exactly where to go inside," said Aziz Hameed, president of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. "Of course, it was complete darkness. There is no electricity. They had to light a candle or something, but they went straight to the place where the important pieces were and took them away. We found that piece of information of great help to us. We began our inquiry there."
Iraq is drawing up a so-called black list that will ban institutions and individual scholars who deal with stolen material from access to Iraqi museums. And the Iraqi officials are encouraged by a series of measures put in place by western governments to discourage art theft. Still, Donny George says the flow of antiquities out of Iraq will not stop until demand ceases.
"There are people outside of Iraq in the United States, in Europe, in Japan, who are following and asking for material and they are paying so much," he said. "If there was no one to buy, there would be no material to be sold. These are the people who are to be blamed because they are encouraging the robbery of this world heritage that we have there in the country."
The Iraqis are developing a new database to document and catalogue their antiquities with help from the New York-based World Monuments Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute. But because many of the objects are so well known that they cannot be sold openly, cultural experts fear they are in private collections and will not be seen again for one or two generations.