Tips from Iraqis are helping coalition forces recover artifacts

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar -- Gen. Tommy Franks said Monday that coalition forces have begun recovering artifacts looted from Iraqi museums -- thefts that sparked international criticism that the United States could have done more to protect such sites.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the commander of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region said over the past four days Iraqis had started informing coalition forces of the whereabouts of the artifacts.

Curators from some of the world's major museums will meet in London on Tuesday to draft a recovery plan for Iraq's pillaged art works, the British Museum said.

Experts from the Louvre in Paris, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Russia's Hermitage and the Berlin Museums will attend the session, organized by the British Museum and the United Nations heritage organization UNESCO.

U.S. Central Command said more than 100 items have been returned, including priceless manuscripts, a 7,000-year-old vase and one of the oldest recorded bronze bas relief bulls.

It said one man returned a chest filled with priceless manuscripts and parchments to a nearby mosque; a local pianist returned 10 pieces including a broken statue of an Assyrian king dated to the 9th century B.C. and the bas relief.

After some negotiation, a man arrived with 46 stolen antiquities, then with eight more pieces, and finally with the vase.

"Over the last 96 hours we have had a whole lot of Iraqis contact our people up in Iraq and say actually we know where a great many of these artifacts are," Franks said in the interview by satellite hookup from his Gulf command post here. The interview, conducted by Louis D. Boccardi, AP president and chief executive, was taped early Monday and shown during the annual meeting of the news cooperative in Seattle.

"Over the past three days we have been collecting artifacts," Franks said. "At the appropriate time we'll place them back in the museums for the Iraqi people," he added in a follow-up interview after the broadcast.

He told the Seattle meeting that ordinary Iraqis had told coalition forces that they wanted the items in coalition hands, not with Baath party members who were responsible for managing the museums and are accused of spiriting the antiquities away.

Franks touched on a host of issues in the interview, including the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, plans to reorganize the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, and the status of Saddam Hussein and his sons.

"Today I don't know whether Hussein and his sons are alive or dead," Franks said. However, he added: "I have seen nothing over the last week or two that convinces me that he is alive."

On the looting issue, Franks said he had expected there would be some "score settling" between various factions as well as a temptation to loot in the aftermath of the regime's collapse.

But he said he thought U.S. forces reacted well in containing it, and that the situation was improving daily.

Thousands of items, some dating back thousands of years, were stolen from Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad and other cultural institutions.

Among the items missing are the Sacred Vase of Warka from 3200 BC. and other treasures from the Assyrian and Sumerian civilizations.

The FBI is working with international law enforcement agencies, art collectors, auctioneers and experts to try to recover them. The U.S.-led coalition on Sunday began broadcasting messages on radio offering rewards to Iraqis to hand over antiquities.

Franks said he doesn't expect to find an organized network of thieves as some art experts have suggested.

"We're apt to find where an individual person decided he or she could take some of the antiquities and save them for a rainy day," he said in the follow-up interview. "We're going to get some more from looters -- someone who knew someone who stole something. We're getting it back that way."

But Prof. Peter Stone, who advised the British military on Iraq's historic sites, said it was likely some of the items were stolen to order for international clients.

"In initial reports we are getting there are indications that replicas of objects have been left in cases," said Stone, an archaeology expert at Newcastle University.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: