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IRAQ: Police bust artifacts traffickers

September 22, 2009 |  6:59 am

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Iraqi police have recovered stolen antiques, including the bust of a Sumerian king, in a sting operation.  An Iraqi commander said three suspects were arrested in Kirkuk after they tried to sell pieces from the Sumerian period that lasted from 4000 to 2000 BC.

"A specialist army and intelligence unit arrested three people involved in the theft and trafficking of Iraqi antiquities,” General Abdel Amir al-Zaidi told journalists.

The men were taken into custody after attempting to sell one of the eight stolen artifacts for $160,000 to an undercover officer posing as a buyer over the weekend.

"We received intelligence tips about a group trying to sell precious antiques in a small town called al-Abbasi. We formed an undercover intelligence team to meet the smugglers and pretend to be interested in buying the eight pieces," said General al-Zaidi.

The money from the art sting, he added, was to be used to finance “terrorist actions.”

 A fourth suspect is apparently still at large.

The undercover operation took two weeks to prepare and was executed based on information from local residents. Gen. al-Zaidi said that “chasing terrorists” is not the Iraqi army’s “only duty” these days. Art thieves need to be put behind bars too.

 “We are now capable of conducting more complicated jobs like busting antiques looters," said Gen. al-Zaidi.

It is still unknown from what location the recovered artifacts were stolen, but many antiquities went missing from Iraqi museums after the U.S.-led invasion. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, looters carried off or smashed thousands of relics dating from the Mesopotamian era from the National Museum in Baghdad. The museum reopened for a day in February this year with around half of its stolen antiquities still missing.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

 Photo: Eight ancient pieces, including the bust of a Sumerian king, were recovered in the operation. Credit: AFP

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