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US to Protect Iraqi Artifacts - 2003-04-15

The United States, under criticism for not preventing last week's looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, is promising to take a leading role in protecting remaining artifacts, and prosecuting those who possess, or traffic in, stolen Iraqi antiquities.

The museum and its priceless collection of artifacts were virtually stripped clean by looters last Friday, as U.S.-led coalition forces, according to the Pentagon, were preoccupied with securing Baghdad and dealing with holdout loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

Now, Secretary of State Colin Powell says, the United States is reaching out to other countries and international organizations to discuss how to protect Iraq's remaining historical treasures, and will take a "leading role" in trying to restore the plundered collection.

"The United States will be working with a number of individuals and organizations to not only secure the facility, but to recover that which has been taken, and also to participate in restoring that which has been broken," Mr. Powell said. "I've been in touch with the European Union presidency this morning - [Greek] Foreign Minister Papandreou, who has experience in such matters. We're also in conversations with UNESCO [U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. But the United States understands its obligations, and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general, but this museum in particular."

Mr. Powell said in a written statement that the United States is working with the international police organization, INTERPOL, to try to intercept stolen Iraqi artifacts before they reach the illicit world market. He said objects taken from museums and archeological sites in Iraq are the property of the Iraqi nation, under both Iraqi and international law, and he warned Americans who purchase or trade in such items that they face prosecution under the U.S. National Stolen Property Act.

Mr. Powell said the U.S. military command in the Middle East, CENTCOM, has issued orders to all troops inside Iraq to protect museums and antiquities throughout the country. He also said American radio broadcasts throughout Iraq are encouraging Iraqis to return any items taken, and are providing instructions on how to do so.