Many items were 'stored, not stolen'
US customs agents working in Iraq say they have recovered thousands of items looted from the national museum in Baghdad following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
They report that about 40,000 manuscripts and 700 other artefacts have been retrieved after being stolen from the museum, which housed one of the Middle East's most comprehensive archaeological collections.
And many "missing" items were secretly stored in hidden vaults for safety shortly before the war began, the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement.
US-led forces were widely criticised for failing to halt the widespread looting of Iraqi treasures during the recent conflict, despite warnings from historical experts that such thefts would occur.
In other Iraq developments:
- US Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States hopes to introduce a draft United Nations Security Council resolution this week that would lift sanctions against Iraq and permit oil exports to resume
- The World Health Organization warns of the danger of a cholera outbreak in southern Iraq due to lack of clean drinking water
- The US is to send 2,000 experts to Iraq to aid the search for weapons of mass destruction and former leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Pentagon says
The Iraqi justice system resumes functioning, with preliminary hearings investigating the cases of 13 prisoners accused of serious crimes.
Agents from ICE - part of America's newly created Homeland Security Department - were deployed in the region before the war began, and some were embedded with combat troops to conduct investigative operations, the statement said.
The US says there is evidence of organised looting
Once in Baghdad, agents and US military officials began working with their Iraqi counterparts to catalogue missing items, and US forces have broadcast radio messages promising rewards and an amnesty for those who return looted antiquities.
Some agents even began sleeping in the museum to help prevent further looting.
Some of the items recovered so far include a clay pot dating from about 5000 BC and an inscribed cornerstone from King Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon palace, dating from about 600 BC.
'We will not rest'
However, other items remain missing, and US Attorney General John Ashcroft has said there is evidence that organised criminals were behind the looting of select, high value items, possibly stolen to order for international clients.
Mr Ashcroft vowed that those who had stolen priceless Iraqi artefacts would be tracked down by the US and international police organisation Interpol.
"Regardless of how sophisticated these criminals are... the US law enforcement and our colleagues at Interpol will not rest until the stolen Iraqi artefacts are returned to their rightful place: the public museums and libraries of Iraq," he told a conference on the thefts organised by Interpol in Lyon, France.
The US has reportedly prepared a UN Security Council resolution asking nations to be on the alert for, and to return, any stolen Iraqi objects.
And Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said a priority
would be to build a reliable database of stolen or destroyed items, which investigators, customs officials and dealers could then use.
Leading international experts in Mesopotamian antiquities, who met in London last week, have also called for a further tightening up of Iraq's borders to stop looted items being smuggling out of the country.