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Baghdad treasures flow out
- Exposed: smuggling racket that thrives on ingenious tricks

Amman, June 16 (Reuters): Hidden in cars, coat pockets and even bags of onions, ancient treasures are flowing out of Iraq and many are surfacing in Jordan, where officials have seized a record 1,347 pieces in the past two years.

The seized artefacts, kept in a secret storehouse, included an Assyrian ivory carving ransacked from the Baghdad Museum by looters as Saddam Hussein’s rule crumbled, UN and Jordanian officials said this week.

“These pieces are priceless. They are very important. They tell us a lot about the history, the habits and the fashion of the time,” said Philippe Delanghe, programme specialist for culture in the Iraq office of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), based in Amman.

“The Jordanian government has been one of the most active in the region in terms of pursuing illicit trafficking of Iraqi artefacts,” he said.

Jordan, which shares a long border with Iraq, is believed to be a major transit point for smuggling antiquities from the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to wealthy collectors in Europe and the US.

A close US ally, Jordan has tightened security at its borders, and custom officials and police have received training from Unesco and Italy’s carabinieri to help identify stolen treasures. Smaller numbers have been seized in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria but Jordan has recovered by far the most. Items have also surfaced in Italy and the US.

Most of the antiquities seized by Jordanian customs and police were plundered from Iraq’s vast archaeological sites and from storage houses in Mosul and Nassiriya, said Fawwaz Khraysheh, the head of Jordan’s department of antiquities.

They include cuneiform tablets ' clay palettes bearing symbols regarded as the origins of writing ' bronze jewellery, ceramic figurines and Islamic coins from the Omeyad period in the 7th century AD.

Khraysheh said the pieces, as well as paintings and pictures of a smiling Saddam stolen by a foreign journalist from one of the former dictator’s palaces, would be returned once Iraqi officials requested them.

The most valuable piece confiscated by the Jordanians is the Assyrian ivory carving, dating from about 2,000 BC. It is believed to have been part of the bed of an Assyrian king and the carving represents hunting and court scenes.

It was broken into pieces by the smugglers and seized at the Karama border crossing months after looters broke into Baghdad’s national museum in April 2003 and stole about 15,000 pieces.

About half of the pieces looted from the Baghdad museum have been recovered.

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