U.S. holds 80,000 Iraqi antiquities

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By Khayoun Saleh

Azzaman, January 11, 2012

The U.S. still keeps 80,000 Iraqi artifacts and refuses to turn them back to the Iraq Museum, a senior Antiquities Department official has said.

The official, Hazem al-Shammari, said Iraqi authorities were in touch with their U.S. counterparts but the discussion have so far led to nothing.

Shammari is the official spokesperson for the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism of which oversees and administers antiquities, museums and excavations in Iraq.

The U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. It had more than 150,.000 troops and tens of thousands of the so-called security guards on the ground in Iraq in the years up to its withdrawal by the end to 2011.

Shammari did not say how the massive volume of antiquities ended up in the U.S. and why the U.S. is refusing to turn it back to Iraq.

The remark by Shammari came amid a wide-ranging interview with Azzaman in which he gave a preview of the state of antiquities in the country.

He also gave no details about the value, type and significance of the artifacts but the figure is massive and points to large-scale looting and removal of heritage without Iraqi consent.

U.S. troops were known to have camped at major Mesopotamian sites in Iraq. Ancient landmarks like Babylon, Ur, Nimrud and others were reported to have been scenes of extensive damage due to the presence of heavy armor and illegal digging by the troops.

On Iraq’s richness in ancient heritage, Shammari said  the Antiquities Department has been updating its maps which currently include more than 40,000 ancient sites.

“Of these we have at least 10,000 sites which are archaeologically significant,” he said. The phrase “archaeologically significant” alludes to the high possibility of the place containing magnificent and historically very important relics.

Shammari said antiquities experts were studying the other 30,000 sites and for sure many more will be added to the list of “archaeological significant” list.

The archaeological map of Iraq will see large transformation once “we have the resources to do our job properly,” he said.

He said the department was still poorly staffed with the government allocations hardly enough to run basic duties.

Most of the significant sites remain unexcavated and unprotected, he said.