MOSUL, Iraq — The mystery of who looted Iraq's archeological treasures is rich with suspects and clues, such as the belly dancer who many believe became Saddam Hussein's mistress or the skeleton of a man who was thrown down a well almost 3,000 years ago.
Taken together, Iraqi archeologists say, the evidence convinces them that the very people entrusted with protecting some of history's most significant relics are responsible for some of the worst plundering of ancient artifacts.
Thieves left a long trail, with many twists and turns, which runs back at least to 1991, when Hussein's defeat in the Persian Gulf War reduced Iraq's antiquities to booty for his cronies to steal, the archeologists charge.
"The gang started in the early 1990s, with the support of Saddam Hussein himself," said Junayd Fakhri, an archeologist who claims the 1990 discovery of a royal Assyrian treasure buried in a palace well, perhaps in the 8th century BC.
Priceless relics of gold and ivory were uncovered with about 400 skeletons, one shackled in irons at the wrists and ankles, Fakhri said. He thinks it was an Assyrian king executed and buried with his retinue at Nimrud, 20 miles southeast of the northern city of Mosul.
It was an extraordinary find, and a controversial theory, one that international experts would normally study in great detail, examining the bones and the jewelry and vigorously debating their meaning.
But Fakhri and several other Iraqi experts say Hussein's culture and information minister during the 1980s and early '90s, Latif Nusayyif Jasim, ordered about 160 pounds of Nimrud's golden treasures, including a queen's crown and jewelry, shipped to Baghdad. The treasure was stored in a vault at the national bank, which was looted along with the national museum in the early hours after Hussein's fall.
"They can say the museum was looted and nobody knows the truth," Fakhri said. "The truth is they sold all the pieces."
Similar but sketchy accounts of what Nimrud's Iraqi guards now call "The Killing Well" and its skeletons have seeped out of Iraq, and experts abroad don't yet know what to make of them, said John Russell, professor of art history and archeology at the Massachusetts College of Art. It will take the digging of an archeological detective to piece together the truth, Russell said in a telephone interview.
Russell warned about the looting of Iraq's antiquities in 1995, when he noticed that a piece of Assyrian art for sale was from the Nineveh palace, near Mosul. As a member of a UC Berkeley team that visited Nineveh in 1989 and 1990, Russell took 900 photographs of the palace, built around 700 BC. The pictures showed the object on sale had been broken off.
The next year, a lawyer contacted Russell to ask whether 10 Assyrian sculptures that a client wanted to buy were legal. They had been looted too, nine of them from the middle of separate wall slabs, by thieves who apparently knew what would bring the best price.
At least one of the pieces was retrieved after a private collector in England tried to ship it to Israel, Russell said. It was returned to the Baghdad museum, where it apparently survived the recent looting, he added.
But the world market for stolen antiquities is still very large, and supported by havens such as Switzerland, where the law favors buyers of stolen property, Russell said. "If you buy it and don't show it for five years, and claim you didn't know it was stolen, it's yours," he added.
There wasn't much of a market for ancient Assyrian art until the 1990s, Russell said, because there wasn't any supply, apart from the pieces still held in private collections dating back to the European colonizers' 19th century plunder of the Middle East.
An English private school inherited one of those sculptures and put it up for auction in 1994. It sold for $12 million, the highest price ever paid for an antiquity, Russell said.
Two days after Iraqi troops surrendered Mosul this month, looters scared off the guards at the Nimrud museum and entered by breaking a small hole in the mud brick wall, said Shehab Ahmad, a policeman at the site.
He bowed on one knee, and raised his right hand open to the sky to demonstrate the alabaster bas relief sculpture of a woman, about 3 feet high, that the thieves stole. "It would be impossible to sell legally, but it would bring a pretty high price," Russell said.
One of the guardians of Iraq's ancient culture, which dates to the birth of civilization, was Mansiyah Khazer. Hussein met her during a tour of Hatra, 55 miles southwest of Mosul, capital of the first Arab kingdom, said Mamoun Ghanim, a veteran archeologist at Mosul's museum.