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Monday, June 22, 1998 Published at 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK

World: Middle East

Iraq acts to protect ancient treasures

The 2,000-year-old temple of Habtra is feared to have been looted

Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, has ordered new steps to be taken to protect Iraq's archaeological heritage which has become the target of large-scale theft and smuggling.

Iraqi newspapers quoted the president as saying governors and regional security officials should be given the means to monitor the ancient sites.

[ image: Saddam Hussein is worried about Iraq's heritage]
Saddam Hussein is worried about Iraq's heritage
"Antiquities are the most vital properties of the state. They form the priority of the national security," he said.

Iraq, at the heart of the ancient land of Mesopotamia, is a treasure trove of more than 10,000 archaelogical sites. They include Baghdad itself, the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Widespread theft has robbed these sites as well as Iraq's museums of many of their treasures in the years since the 1991 Gulf conflict.

Tough penalties for looting

The government already imposes stiff penalties on looters. In one case, nine men were executed after having been found guilty of trying to steal the head of an Assyrian monument, a winged bull, from the northern town of Khorabad.

At the same time the authorities offer rewards for the return of missing items.

United Nations officials say some of the thefts are carried out by ordinary Iraqis impoverished by eight years of international sanctions.

But there is also evidence of larger-scale theft and smuggling. In 1992, the Iraqi authorities published a list of 4,000 items which had gone missing - fewer than 20 have been returned.

Experts on the international market in artefacts say the information the Iraqis have provided is insufficient and many of the items are very small, like seals, rings and coins which are easy to conceal and difficult to trace.

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