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Cultural Leaders say Looting of Iraqi Antiquities Continues

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.

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. 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," he said.

Thousands of other objects were returned or captured by either international police or guards belonging to a new federal protection system. In some cases, people hid objects to keep them safe. 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. 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," said Aziz Hameed is president of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.

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. The Iraqis are also developing a new database to document and catalogue their antiquities with help from the New York-based World Monument Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute. Still, according to Mr. George 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. 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," he said.

But some new measures put into place by western governments to discourage art theft are coming under scrutiny from private collectors and dealers, says attorney Peter Tompa, an avid ancient coin collector. Mr. Tompa represents the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild. Mr. Tompa says the collectors' groups believe that archeological sites should be protected, but are concerned about the remedies.

"The proponents of restrictions on imports of antiquities, including coins, suggest that the burden of proof should be shifted to the importer to prove the negative," he said. "For example, recently there was a statute that was passed that authorized the president to impose import restrictions on artifacts of potential Iraqi origin. Assuming that gets implemented, the State Department and Customs are going to work on a list of what is restricted. Then they are going to have a picture of a like kind item, put it on a website and when something similar comes into the country the Customs agent is going to ask the importer to prove essentially that it either did not come from Iraq or it had come from Iraq but it had come with an export license. You cannot make that assumption. That is what our main argument is."

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.