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Middle East

Iraqi expert accuses West over antiquities trade

A senior Iraqi official has accused the West of not doing enough to stop the thriving trade in antiquities smuggled out of the country's depleted archeological sites and sold in auction houses across Britain, America and Europe.

Dr Bahaa Mayah, a special adviser to Iraq's Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, called for an immediate global ban on the sale of at least 100,000 artefacts that have been stolen since the invasion.

Speaking at the British Museum, he said it was the responsibility of the occupying forces to retrieve the valuable artefacts that had been plundered from southern Iraq's archaeologically rich sites since 2003.

Iraqi ministers are to discuss "imminently" the proposal of a global ban with members of the United nations Security Council, he added. "This is a problem of illegal trade that should be of concern to the international community. We want to strip the commercial value of Iraqi antiquities.

"Our antiquities are scattered everywhere from America to Europe. This problem is not new but it has intensified since 2003 and is now becoming a bigger problem.

"Some countries have co-operated with Iraq but most have not in terms of returning seized items. America is co-operating and not co-operating at the same time. We were grateful when they returned the Statue of Entemena (from 2,430BC) but at the same time, you see auctioneers all over the country trading in our antiquities. No action is being taken," he said.

The aim of the ban would be to leave the plunder – some 5,000 years old and often of inestimable worth – virtually unsellable.

The smugglers are often Iraqis, although soldiers from occupying forces are also under investigation, yet it was demand in the West – America, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Britain – that was leading to a thriving trade in auction houses, he said.

In December, a 4,000-year-old inscribed clay tablet, which authorities suspect was smuggled from Iraq, was pulled from eBay's Swiss website minutes before the close of bidding.

Professor Elizabeth Stone, a specialist in southern Iraqi heritage at Stony Brook University in New York, said Iraq had been depleted of 15 per cent of its ancient artefacts. Ever since Baghdad's National Museum was ransacked in 2003, "entrepreneurs" had set up organised teams to plunder ancient grounds. She said neolithic sites had been heavily looted as had those which contained items from the first Mesopotamian Empire, about 2300BC. "It looks as if the looters know exactly what they are looking for," she said.

Six months ago, The Independent revealed the full extent of the devastation on archaeological sites in the south of the country, committed by organised smugglers and troops.

The black market trade route takes the smugglers to the Gulf and into Britain, where a legal loophole enables them to acquire an export licence from the "free zones" in ports. This licence earns them ownership of the stolen objects. Dr Mayah said it then falls upon the Iraqi government to prove these treasures – which have often lain buried for thousands of years – were from their home soil.

Iraq will be demanding compensation for the damage caused to ancient sites, including Babylon, Umma, Zabalam and Ur, by allied troops who have used these grounds as military bases.