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A search for thieves

The calculated nature of the thefts from Iraq's national museum indeed points to insiders.

May 10, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

Baghdad — Baghdad

The thieves worked at night, setting afire shreds of foam rubber to light their way through the blacked-out hallways and subterranean corridors of Iraq's national museum.

They passed though an 8-inch-thick steel door, broke down a wooden door beyond, descended a staircase, negotiated labyrinthine passages and, using heavy tools, smashed through a cinderblock wall to arrive at a little-known storage room. Then they made for the room's far northwest corner.

The burglars left hundreds of antiquities in the room untouched, it appears, finding interest only in the contents of 90 plastic boxes buried beneath others. The containers held thousands of small, ancient amulets, pendants and engraved cylinders once used by rulers and scribes to mark parchments. With gunfire outside still raging, they fled with the small artifacts and have not been seen since.

The number of items stolen during and after the war from one of the world's premier collections of early-civilization antiquities appears now to be much smaller than first suspected. Thousands of pieces, however, are missing. Although many of the thefts are being attributed to looters, some appear almost certainly to be the work either of insiders or experts.

"In the most remote corner of the most remote building, they went after 90 boxes of the most easily transported items," Marine Reserve Lt. Col. Matthew Bogdonos, who heads the investigation, said Thursday. "This theft ring had an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices."

The thieves might also have the knowledge to move such priceless pieces on the black market, experts fear.

Parts of the museum were ransacked after Baghdad began falling to coalition forces in early April, and staffers who had stayed to protect the collection -- said to contain 170,000 items -- finally fled.

Thieves and looters destroyed 17 display cases out of nearly 400 in the museum's main galleries, damaging at least 22 major items and stealing at least 38, military officials now say. The most valuable and notable missing pieces include: the Sacred Vase of Warka, a Sumerian limestone bowl engraved with a depiction of the goddess In-nin, from 3000 BC; a life-size statue of King Entemena from the Sumerian city of Ur, dating to 2430 BC; and a marble head of a woman from Warka, from 3000 BC.

The items missing by the thousands appear to be relatively less valuable, smaller pieces -- many of them not on display but kept locked in the basement of the facility.

"Every piece is priceless," said Muayad Said Damerji, senior advisor to Iraq's Ministry of Culture. "The collection was as important to the world as to Iraqis. Many other collections have large gaps, and so they compare what they find to what we have here. You could tour the history of man from 12000 BC to modern times."

Members of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, CIA and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- many of whom were sent to Iraq originally to search for weapons of mass destruction -- have set up shop alongside soldiers and museum workers to help document the losses and begin a worldwide search for missing pieces.

The task is daunting, in part, because of looting damage and the museum's lack of a cohesive inventory (most records were handwritten). Investigators were initially shocked to see the Golden Harp of Ur in pieces. The harp could be restored, they soon realized, but its centerpiece -- the gold-encased head of a cow -- was missing. Then museum officials told them the missing head was a replica, and the real one was safe in a bank vault.

Bank vaults around the city hold many irreplaceable pieces, say museum officials, who stashed them as coalition troops pushed north. But many of the vaults are in the basement of the badly bombed Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad. Investigators have not been able to reach the vaults, and no one seems to know which vaults hold the museum's treasures anyway. Besides, the vault keys are missing -- as are the keys to the thick steel door breached by the well-studied thieves.

Museum employees also secured thousands of other items in vaults in the museum's basement and locked facilities around the city. When electricity was restored at the museum this week, investigators were able to open those vaults and begin an inventory. Numerous other stashes have yet to be visited.

"To know what is missing we first have to know what was here," said Bogdonos, the head of the team, who has a master's degree in classical studies and works as a Manhattan homicide prosecutor. "But we have to start somewhere, so for now we are assuming that the things employees say are safe in a vault are indeed there."

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