Security officials in Iraq say a sting operation has recovered hundreds of stolen artifacts destined for overseas black markets. The artifacts were illegally dug up from archeological sites around the ancient city of Babylon, about 90 kilometers south of Baghdad.

A senior official in Iraq's interior ministry, General Muhssin Ali, says Iraqi police recently received a tip from an informant about a gang, which had been digging up Babylonian artifacts and trying to sell them to smugglers.

General Ali says a sting operation was put together, using policemen to pose as potential buyers. He says the operation resulted in the arrest of four men early last week.

The arrest marked a rare victory against criminals who have been looting thousands of archeological sites in the country for the past year to make a quick profit. The police say criminals are asking as little as $100 for a crate of what would normally be viewed as priceless archeological finds.

Among the objects recovered last week were dozens of statues of people and animals, water jugs, bowls and a variety of items decorated in cuneiform, a system of writing developed 5000 years ago by the Sumerians who populated the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley area known as Mesopotamia.

Iraq has asked its neighbors to help catch smugglers who take the artifacts across the country's porous borders to buyers in Asia and Europe.

The director of the Iraqi National Museum, Donny George, recently told reporters that several countries, including Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, had cooperated with Baghdad in seizing hundreds of items smuggled across their borders after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

Mr. George says he believes criminals are still able to smuggle Iraqi antiquities through Turkey and Iran. He notes that 15,000 objects stolen from the national museum are missing.

The Iraqi interim government says it is planning to set up a 1300 member antiquities police force, which will patrol archeological sites. However, with 10,000 official sites and another 90,000 unofficial ones scattered across the country, few people believe Iraq's ancient treasures will ever be fully protected from thieves and smugglers.