Iraq complains to Interpol as it seeks return of looted artefacts

Experts say the country's rich history is being lost at 'unprecedented rates' due to conflict

Iraqis look at antiquities on display in Baghdad in February 2022 after they were returned by a private museum in Lebanon. AFP
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Iraq has filed a complaint with Interpol as it seeks to mount pressure on several states to return looted artefacts, the Ministry of Culture said on Monday.

The country, the birthplace of the world's earliest civilisation in recorded history, is home to thousands of artefacts. Some have been lost over the years have yet to be found.

“The case is ongoing and we have had excellent achievements in favour of returning Iraqi antiquities,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Al Alawi.

The ministry said it has a plan in place on how to recover the stolen artefacts.

“There is a recovery operations group that includes some foreign states that are working alongside the ministry,” Mr Al Alawi said.

For decades, the war-torn country has struggled with the widespread theft of its antiquities and ancient paintings.

The looting began when the government lost control of the south in 1991 after the First Gulf War, and continued during the security vacuum that emerged after the US led invasion of 2003.

According to Mr Al Alawi, lootings often happen when “pieces are stolen from museums or from random excavations, which is the major problem the ministry is facing”.

After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, looters entered the Iraqi National Museum, stealing thousands of priceless pieces and damaging many of the ceramics and pottery artefacts.

Iraq has about 15,000 registered archaeological sites, said Mr Al Alawi. However, unregistered sites are double that number.

“Some residents of remote areas, in co-operation with thieves, are excavating these areas and extracting ancient pieces,” he said.

People then smuggle the antiquities and sell them abroad.

“There are strict laws that carry the death penalty for smugglers of antiquities,” said Mr Al Alawi.

In early 2021, Iraq received more than 17,000 ancient artefacts, most of them from the US. The relics, dating as far back as 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and sold on the black market mainly after the First Gulf War.

Among them was an antique clay tablet bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known surviving piece of literature.

For years, experts and officials have said that Iraq’s rich cultural heritage is being lost at “unprecedented rates” as a result of war and conflict between rival groups.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 10:38 AM