Looted ancient treasures recovered in Basra 'sting'

Smugglers were planning to sell priceless artefacts stolen from museums to foreign collectors

Ancient treasures stolen from museums in the anarchic aftermath of the United States-led invasion of Iraq five years ago have been found in Basra, in one of the biggest recoveries of the loot, The Independent can reveal.

The priceless artefacts, about 230 of them, were saved as they were about to be smuggled abroad in a "sting" operation organised by investigators. Seven members of the gang, which is said to have specialised in trafficking the country's stolen antiquities, have been arrested and are being questioned. They are also suspected of being involved in the systematic stripping of archaeological sites.

During the investigation, conducted by Iraqi and British security forces, ancient items destined for private collectors in the Middle East and the West were found buried in gardens and hidden under floors in houses in the suburbs of Basra. According to Iraqi authorities they included Sumerian and Babylonian sculpture, intricate gold jewellery, decorative silverware and ceramic bowls. The artefacts have been sent to Baghdad for analysis and to ascertain their origins.

Iraq's museums and archaeological sites – including the National Museum in Baghdad, established by the British traveller, writer, political analyst and administrator Gertrude Bell, which opened shortly before her death in 1926 – were plundered as the country descended into chaos. More than 20,000 items, some of the most precious antiquities in the world, went missing.

At the time Dr Donny George, the director of research for the Board of Antiquities in Iraq, went to the Palestine Hotel, where US Marines had set up headquarters, to plead for troops to protect the museum. None were sent for another three days.

Afterwards, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, described the days of looting and arson in the Iraqi capital as "untidiness", and said of the sacking of the National Museum: "To try to pass off the fact of that unfortunate activity to a deficit in the war plan strikes me as a stretch." Museums in Basra and Mosul, Iraq's second- and third-largest cities, were also looted.

Much of the heritage of of Mesopotomia, the cradle of human civilisation, disappeared as thieves turned to the archaeological sites.

Some of the stolen artefacts were recovered in Iraq and outside the country. The National Museum has recovered around 3,500 of its 15,000 stolen artefacts. But the ferocious violence in Iraq meant that allied and coalition forces and their Iraqi allies did not have the time or manpower to investigate the thefts. But now more efforts are being put in by the Iraqi government to recover the country's plundered cultural heritage, and it is offering rewards for information.

The Basra investigation began after security forces received intelligence that a haul of the treasures had arrived in the city en route for Kuwait. An informant introduced two undercover officers from the Iraqi Army's Quick Response Force – normally a counter-insurgency unit – to the underworld group as agents of foreign buyers who were keen to see what was on offer. The officers were shown artefacts wrapped in newspaper and stored in cardboard boxes. They persuaded the gang that their clients needed to see photographs of some of the items.

Lieutenant Munir Khalid, one of the investigators, said: "The criminals must have known that they were taking a risk by allowing the photography but their greed overcame them and the undercover men used their mobile phones to take photos of the stolen goods. After that it was a question of putting the operation together and making sure that we got all the men and not just the first few we met."

A raid carried out last week in the Abi al-Hassan area led to the arrest of five men and the discovery of 160 items buried in the garden and under stone slabs in the kitchen. A search of another house in Al-Ayaqub led to the recovery of more artefacts buried in a garden, and the arrest of two more men.

The recovered treasure was displayed by the Iraqi security forces on a 15ft-long Formica-topped table at the Shatt al-Arab hotel, which has been used as an army base since the war.

Colonel Ali Sabah, who led the operation, said: "I am very happy because it's my civilisation ... and we have saved some of its history." Picking up a small, delicate amulet he continued: "I am told it's more than 6,000 years old and too valuable to even have a price. We are very proud. When my soldiers go to the museums with their families and see some of these things they can say 'we got them back for our country'."

British soldiers were also involved in the operation. Captain Laurence Roche, of the 20th Armoured Brigade, said: "It really was being in Aladdin's cave with all that wonderful jewellery, sculptures, there was even an oil lamp. It was an amazing privilege just to be there to see it all. It makes you realise just how rich is the heritage of Iraq and the history of mankind is tied up with this place."

Jawad Rashid al-Husseini, an Iraqi arts and antiquities historian, said: "Many of us thought all these things have gone forever. But now we are getting some good news. The Basra find sounds very encouraging, all the items will now have to be examined to verify what they are and classified and returned to their rightful place."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition