Chalabi's men hand 'rescued' artefacts back to museum

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad and James Morrison

The Independent -- 27 April 2003

Dozens of tablets and statuettes believed to have been among those looted from the Iraqi National Museum were returned yesterday after being "seized" by followers of Ahmed Chalabi, the man the Pentagon is grooming to lead the country.

Members of his Free Iraqi Forces claimed to have recovered the three boxes of antiquities in an armed stand-off with a gang of men who were driving through the southern city of Kut en route to the Iranian border.

News of the encounter came as the international row surrounding US handling of the mass looting of Iraq's cultural buildings escalated. While the US ambassador to Bahrain conceded that his country should have done more to protect Iraq's heritage, the US reconstruction team in Baghdad was briefing that much of the damage was caused by journalists "trampling" on objects dropped by looters.

But sources in Baghdad claimed that looting was still continuing this weekend. As attention focused on protecting the main museum, thieves were said to have carried out a series of opportunist raids on the city's modern art gallery.

The "rescued" artefacts, which included statuettes, busts and tablets bearing what appeared to be ancient script, were unloaded in Baghdad yesterday after being transported in three medium-sized tin trunks from Kut. They were seized at a road block two days earlier from a group of armed men travelling in a car towards Iran.

Zaab Sethna, spokesman in Baghdad for Mr Chalabi, the controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress, told journalists that the items were intercepted by a squad of his Free Iraqi Forces armed with Kalashnikov rifles. He said the looters offered them a $5,000 (£3,150) bribe to keep quiet, but they refused to do so.

There was no independent corroboration of the incident, and Mr Sethna did not specify what happened to the looters afterwards. Sources suggested they were allowed to proceed with up to two crates of artefacts still on them, in return for handing over the bulk of the treasures.

The involvement of Mr Chalabi's fighters in this instance of salvage is being treated with scepticism by his Iraqi opponents. One source said: "This is very much part of a kind of campaign to try to win over the Iraqis. The US likes Chalabi, but he is not popular among his own people."

A similar public relations offensive appears to be being waged by the American reconstruction team. Its publicists spent yesterday trying to convince reporters that the scale of the looting had been exaggerated and that many ancient objects remained safe, having been pre-emptively hidden by Baghdad museum staff.

In an interview with the Bahrain Tribune, an English-language daily, the US ambassador there, Ronald Neumann, said of the response to the threat to Iraq's museum collections: "I think we made a mistake. We did not think the Iraqis would go knock down their own heritage. Maybe we should have expected it." Asked whether the US had been too concerned about safeguarding oil reserves at the expense of its heritage, he added: "Yes, we worried about oil. If we had not protected the oil, what would we use to rebuild Iraq?"

Yesterday, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, criticised America's handling of the looting crisis. He also said that Donny George, the head of research at the Baghdad museum, would be attending an emergency summit of international curators in London on Tuesday, where he will detail the estimated scale of the devastation.

Among the most significant items believed to be missing are the Vase of Uruk and the Harp of Ur, dating from the rule of Sumerian kings between 3,000BC and 2,500BC, as well as the bronze Statue of Basitki from the Akkadian kingdom.

Responding to reports that the US military is continuing to abdicate responsibility for protecting Iraq's heritage, he said: "The safety of the public collections of Iraq is clearly the responsibility of the force on the ground. There can be no question of that."

Mr MacGregor confirmed that a "first aid team" from the British Museum would be dispatched to Iraq as soon as possible, buoyed by hundreds of thousands of pounds in private donations raised in "the past 72 hours". The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is also preparing to send a team of Arabic-speaking officials with in-depth knowledge of the country's history.