Iraqis have sworn not to return missing artifacts until Americans leave, investigator says.
Thousands of antiquities missing from the Iraq National Museum have been found but not returned because citizens won't hand them over to either their American occupiers or remnants of the hated former government, U.S. investigators say.
The investigators are trying to recover an unknown number of artifacts looted from the museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad.
Members of the museum staff have "sworn on the Quran not to reveal the ... secret place" where they hid treasures for safeguarding before the war, chief investigator Col. Matthew Bogdanos said Friday.
He said that while the loss of "a single piece of mankind's shared history is a tragedy," it's now clear some early estimates of 170,000 pieces looted was a great exaggeration.
His three-week-old investigation so far has recovered 951 stolen items. Some were brought in under a no-questions-asked amnesty program and others were found in raids, he told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference from Baghdad.
Well over 47,000 other items have been located but remain under control of Iraqis who won't relinquish them -- including the staff of the Baghdad museum who have been working with Bogdanos' investigators.
"The investigation ... uncovered the existence of a secret storage location that has been used by the staff since 1990," Bogdanos said.
"They won't divulge the place until the United States leaves and there is a new government," he said. They have promised investigators an inventory of the items stored there.
Elsewhere, a "neighborhood watch" is guarding over 300 boxes containing thousands of precious manuscripts and books the staff moved into a bunker before the war, Bogdanos said. American forces agreed to that arrangement after community leaders said they didn't want to return them to a museum staff they associated with Saddam's fallen government.
Iraq's prized collection held millennia-old artworks from the Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures. Ancient Mesopotamia -- modern-day Iraq -- was the cradle of urban civilization. Some experts fear thousands of pieces of art, including priceless antiquities, may be missing.
"We know what's missing from certain rooms, but when you get to storage rooms that contain upward of 100,000 different pieces, each of which has to be individually counted and catalogued and compared against an original excavation site number, that's going to take time," Bogdanos said. Some of the excavated items are small shards of pottery.
The 951 pieces recovered include one of the oldest known bronze relief bowls, a pottery jar from the 6th millennium B.C., one of the earliest known Sumerian statues and an Assyrian statue from the 9th century B.C.
Perhaps the most valuable item missing is a white limestone votive bowl from Sumerian times, commonly called the Sacred Vase of Warka, Bogdanos said.
Some of the stolen items have already started appearing on the international art market and at least one suspected piece was seized at an American airport, FBI officials have said.
Bogandos' team of investigators from the military and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also reported that:
* Over the past 13 years, museum staff removed 15 to 20 boxes of gold and jewelry -- more than 7,000 pieces including the famed treasure of Nimrod -- and put them in two underground central bank vaults. The staff has given partial inventories, but the vaults remain sealed and the Americans don't have authority to open them.
* Months before the war, the staff moved ancient books, manuscripts and scrolls to a western Baghdad bomb shelter. The roughly 40,000 pieces are now under lock and guard in the neighborhood watch effort.
* Weeks before the war, the staff moved many smaller pieces from the public galleries to the restoration room, storage rooms or the secret location, then left the museum on April 8. They emptied more than 400 display cases of such items as gold, pottery beads, amulets, pendants, and ivory statuettes said to be in the secret place.
That meant of some 450 cases, only 28 were broken into.
* Larger statues and friezes were left on the gallery floor, either covered with foam padding or laid on their sides. Of those, 42 pieces or exhibits were stolen, perhaps most notably the Sacred Vase of Warka.
Of these 42 pieces or exhibits, nine have been recovered in the first 25 days of the investigation.
"The majority of the work remaining, that of tracking down each of these missing pieces, will likely take years," Bogdanos said.
"The United States government, the United States Central Command and this team are committed to restoring these priceless treasures of our history to their rightful place."
[Source: Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press Writer, Washington, 16May03]
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