Met police swoop on illicit Iraqi antiques

Three antiques dealers have been arrested in a secret police operation to combat the growing trade in artefacts stolen from Iraq.

Officers from Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques Unit have recovered a number of valuable pieces stolen from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites since 1990. It follows newly introduced United Nations laws that came into force in Britain in June which make it an offence to be knowingly involved in the importation or exportation of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property.

One of the suspects, a 75-year-old dealer who holds a British passport and is of Iranian descent, was arrested and released on police bail last month during an undercover investigation into a central London antiques gallery.

In connection with that arrest, officers recovered an Assyrian "stone relief" depicting a "sacred winged guardian holding fruit from a sacred tree" worth many thousands of pounds.

The item was looted from the palace of Ashur Nasir-pal II in central Iraq after the first Gulf War of 1991.

Dr Neil Brodie, the co-ordinator of the Illicit Antiques Research Centre, which was established to help archaeologists combat the massive looting in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, said the new legislation gave police forces wide powers to target the trade in Iraqi antiquities. He said it was impossible to put a value on the illicit Iraqi trade in London but that it probably ran into millions of pounds.