Home to what was once ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq has long been a target of looters and thieves intent on stealing the country's treasure trove of antiquities. But a large cache of priceless artifacts has been returned to Iraq's government, thanks to a multi-year initiative by U.S. customs authorities to intercept items being smuggled into the United States. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

Just how much of Iraq's wealth of antiquities has been stolen from archeological sites may never be known, but looters raided the country's museums during and after the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Iraq reclaimed a portion of what has been lost over the years in a transfer ceremony at Iraq's embassy in Washington. Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie took possession of more than 1,000 rare objects, many of which date back to Mesopotamian times.

Handing over the items was the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Myers.

"It is a very high honor on behalf of the people of the United States of America to be able to formally return over a thousand artifacts back to the people of Iraq. After a long and treacherous journey in many cases, they are finally being returned home," said Myers. "These items are much more than souvenirs or art objects - even though that is how people who tried to profit from them treated them. These are part of Iraq's priceless history."

The objects include inscribed ceramic pieces, figurines, tablets, and ancient coins. They were seized from smugglers who either hid the objects or misrepresented their country of origin to U.S. customs officials. Presumably, the artifacts would have been put up for sale had they not been intercepted.

A small portion of the items were displayed on a table at the embassy. Antiquities expert John Russell from the Massachusetts College of Art said one piece in particular grabbed his attention: a copper peg statue that came from a southern Iraq temple dedicated to an ancient king who ruled the region during the 24th Century BC.

Russell points to writing on the statue, which measures about 20 centimeters in length.

"It says that this particular statue is his [the king's] personal deity, who is to pray for him in perpetuity. So that is why the statue has his [the deity's] arms folded. It is completely irreplaceable," said Russell. "It is a unique object."

Before taking possession of the items, Ambassador Sumaida'ie expressed gratitude to U.S. officials.

"This is a very happy occasion for us. We are retrieving some of the treasures of our ancestors. And this is not only something that is important for Iraq," said Sumaida'ie. "It is really a record of the beginnings of civilization for humanity. These items, although they are small, they are very, very big in our eyes."

The ambassador said the objects would be transported to Baghdad and entrusted to the city's museum of antiquities.