BAGHDAD — Gold earrings made for an Assyrian queen, a sacred 4,000-year-old statue, and 540 other looted pieces of Iraq’s ancient history were formally returned to Iraq on Monday in what was billed as a triumph of justice and international cooperation.
“This is a very happy day – we are making progress in the very important field of returning Iraqi history to its rightful home,” said Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaidaie, who said the objects had been found through a combination of Iraqi and American efforts. “Iraq cannot be summarized by 30 years of problems and wars – it can stand and it can reclaim its history.”
He noted, however, that a previous shipment of 632 stolen pieces recovered in the US had gone missing after being delivered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office last year.
The looting of the Iraq museum was one of the most controversial moments in the early part of the war. US troops sent in to topple Saddam Hussein and secure the city had no orders to protect the museum or other cultural institutions. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of pieces of Iraq’s history were looted while other cultural institutions were burned.
Monday’s return of more than 542 involved countries including Syria, Germany, and Turkey – as well as the United States, operating through a dozen different government agencies – and was hailed as a significant achievement.
“This goes back to the most sensitive nerve in the Iraqi psyche,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Monitor. “These are antiquities that have been stolen from the museum and now to get them back is a healing process – that we, your sons, the government, the embassies the ministries are able to bring them back is very, very important.”
Another 632 recovered pieces are now missing
Each of the recovered pieces has a story to it. But in a twist worthy of a detective novel, Mr. Sumaidaie noted the missing shipment of the 632 recovered looted pieces sent back from the US. Because of Baghdad’s precarious security, the Iraqi ambassador said he had arranged with Gen. David Petraeus to have them returned.
“We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them,” Sumadaie told diplomats and journalists gathered at the Foreign Ministry.
The pointed comment by the nonpartisan ambassador was seen as an effort to put pressure on an unresponsive prime minister’s office to either produce or account for the artifacts.
The pieces signed for at the prime ministry were mostly cylinder seals – ancient carved stone cylinders used as personal signatures – and other small items, but Iraqi authorities have not been able to get an answer as to what has happened to them, he told the Monitor.
Prime Minister Maliki’s office could not be reached for comment.
Too dangerous to display them in museum
Many of the more than 540 recovered items have been at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington over the past two years, waiting for security to improve in the Iraqi capital as well as for the bureaucratic requirements involved in shipping the pieces to be worked out.
While attacks have fallen significantly in the past two years, security is still fragile and there are no immediate plans to reopen the Iraq museum to the general public. The earrings will go back into a bank vault rather than a museum display case.
On Sunday, a group of suicide bombers tried to storm a Defense Ministry building in central Baghdad. Twelve people were killed in the attack, which was repelled with the help of a US Army unit stationed inside the building.
On Monday, two American soldiers were killed in the north of the country and an Iraqi television anchorman, Riyad al-Serai, was gunned down in West Baghdad.
How the antiquities were retrieved
The retrieval of each one of the major pieces is one of international intrigue. The earrings were found after they offered for sale at auction at Christie’s in New York last December. The catalog listed them as having been acquired by the owner before 1969, the year before a UNESCO convention made it more difficult to trade in antiquities.
The earrings were recognized by Iraqi archaeologists as part of the treasures of Nimrud, excavated in 1989 when an Iraqi team discovered a royal tomb overlooked by previous British excavations. They were believed stolen from the Baghdad Museum before the collection was put into safekeeping in bank vaults before the 1991 war with the US over Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Christie’s, which had put opening bids at $45,000 to $65,000 for the earrings, withdrew them after the Iraq Embassy launched a formal claim.
The treasures of Nimrud were considered one of the most spectacular finds of the 20th century, on a scale of the gold found in King Tut’s tomb. The gold jewelry and other objects were publicly exhibited only twice – the second time for just one afternoon when US occupation authorities reopened the museum in 2003 for a day before abruptly closing it again because of violence.
Headless basalt statue, Saddam’s machine gun
The other retrieved objects on display on Monday included a 440-lb. headless basalt statue of Assyrian ruler King Entemena, who ruled around 2,400 B.C., found in Ur early in the last century. It was believed to have taken as a war trophy from Lagash and had its head removed in antiquity.
The shipment from the US included a modern-day war trophy – a pearl-handled, Russian-made machine gun once given as a gift to Hussein and looted by a US Army soldier from a palace in 2003. US Customs agents retrieved the rifle from the headquarters of a Fort Lewis, Wash.-based Stryker brigade and returned it to Iraqi authorities.
They also included a Torah – a scroll with a handwritten copy of the Jewish Old Testament – retrieved from Germany. Iraqi antiquity officials have quietly launched a campaign to retrieve Jewish artifacts illegally taken out of the country after the looting in 2003.
35,000 pieces returned since 2003
The US State Department helped restore about 200 of the pieces that had been found damaged – the majority of them cuneiform and stone tablets and tiny cylinder seals.
The director of the Iraq Museum, Amira Edan, said 35,000 pieces have been returned since 2003.
Dr. Edan said she was still trying to retrieve looted cuneiform tablets being held by the Spanish government, which has said it requires more proof that they belong to Iraq.