Antiquities Smugglers Face Crackdown in Iraq

Antiquities smugglers in Iraq have been using satellite technology to locate archaeological sites, prompting Iraqi officials to call for an international conference to address this problem, Nassir al-Hassoun reports.

al-monitor Jordanian officials display cuneiform tablets confiscated from smugglers in Amman June 16, 2005. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Jarekji.

Topics covered

antiquities, smuggling, museum

Dec 14, 2012

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism announced that detainees from antiquities-smuggling gangs have confessed to using satellites to locate antiquities, and have admitted to ties with international mafias. The ministry intends to organize an international conference aimed at outlawing the smuggling and circulation of antiquities.

An official from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities told Al-Hayat that "these confessions confirm the involvement of other states and mafias in these crimes, and highlight the need for the intervention of the United Nations and the international community."

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, antiquities were looted from Iraqi museums and artifacts were stolen from archaeological sites and smuggled to different countries.

The official — who is familiar with the investigation into the gangs, whose members were recently arrested in the cities of Dhi Qar and Basra in possession of 186 archaeological artifacts — said that "previous investigations into dozens of gangs specialized in digging up these sites and stealing their contents did not reveal information about them possessing accurate maps of the sites linked to satellite images."

He noted that "the fact that these gangs — whose members mostly hail from rural areas — possessed maps developed from GPS-based satellite imaging represents a turning point in these investigations, which until now we have not been able to solve. This is evidence of the involvement of foreign states and dangerous global mafias that have the ability to exploit satellite technology to loot Iraq's antiquities and sell these artifacts at auctions worldwide."

He added, "these confessions revealed the existence of two people — one based in Jordan and the other in Dubai — who ran the Iraqi antiquities-smuggling ring through the Gulf states, Turkey, Syria or Jordan. They were in charge of the smuggling and helped deliver the artifacts to markets in Germany, France, London and Sweden."

The spokesman of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Hakem al-Shamari, told Al-Hayat that "these investigations rest with the relevant security agencies." However, he added that "the Organization for the Protection of Archaeological Sites is not capable of putting an end to these crimes. The reason for this is that there are over 41,000 sites across the country — 12,000 of which have been excavated — and only 16,000 guards to protect the sites. There are attempts to hire 14,000 additional guards early next year."

Shamari announced that they had begun preparations for an international conference. More than 60 countries will be involved, either because they are areas used for smuggling stolen artifacts, or they are nations that have allowed auctions for the sale of these goods.

He pointed out that "Iraq is determined to get out of this conference an international resolution criminalizing the sale of these antiquities and targeting dealers."

Regarding the most recent count of stolen artifacts, Shamari said that "Out of 15,000 pieces stolen from the Iraqi Museum, 4,662 artifacts have been recovered. Furthermore, we have recovered 117,000 pieces that were stolen through indiscriminate digging at these sites, out of hundreds of thousands of pieces."

The Iraqi National Museum currently displays 600,000 artifacts dating back Assyrian and Babylonian times, as well as pieces from the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations of Ur and al-Hadr, and the Islamic era.

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