Looted Iraqi Relics Still Missing

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More than 2 1/2 years after looters sacked Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities and police forces throughout the world are still searching for thousands of stolen items, including a handful of the most famous artifacts in history.

U.S. military sources say forces in Iraq have no systematic way of investigating the missing objects, and in the ongoing insurgency neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces can justify using scarce manpower to guard sites in the countryside, where widespread looting has continued unchecked since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.

Law enforcement organizations worldwide are chasing the lost items, but their representatives said there is no systematic coordination, and they are relying on a shifting set of ad hoc partnerships to bring the thieves to account.

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, charged with recovering the museum treasures in the six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, eventually counted about 14,000 lost items, of which about 5,500 have been recovered.

Perhaps not surprisingly, only a few high-quality looted pieces have reappeared since the end of 2003. Yet paradoxically, although lower-end artifacts occasionally are placed for auction on the Internet, there has been no serious upsurge in public sales of Iraqi antiquities, either in the United States or Europe.

Experts attribute the absence of a market to a combination of factors, none of them verifiable. Tough laws in Britain and the United States may have scared off known dealers, some say, or smugglers may simply have stashed their prizes in warehouses until they think it is safe.

Others suggest that it takes a few years for stolen goods to migrate from the Middle East to shops in London, Tokyo or New York. Still others suspect the loot has gone to collectors in nearby states along the Persian Gulf, where Mesopotamian artifacts enjoy a stature they never attained in the West.

Most sources agree, however, that the most famous pieces are too hot ever to be handled again in public. Without sophisticated police work, help from the art world and patience, the only people who will ever see them are the millionaires who buy them on the black market and lock them away.

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