U.S. returns recovered artifacts taken from Iraq

WASHINGTON Thu Jul 7, 2011 6:44pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An ancient bead necklace, terra cotta tablets from ancient Babylonia depicting Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, and posters of deposed leader Saddam Hussein were among artifacts that U.S. officials returned to the Iraqi government on Thursday.

The repatriation of the relics -- some as old as 4,000 years -- is the latest in an ongoing mission to locate more than 15,000 artifacts thought to have been looted from Iraqi museums and archeological sites since the start of the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq.

As Iraq rebuilds and U.S. forces withdraw, events such as these are even more significant, said Samir Sumaida'ie, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States.

"When we repatriate more and more items, it adds to the feeling that Iraq is recovering," Sumaida'ie told Reuters.

The relics included clay pottery and plaques dating back to 2000 to 1600 BC depicting day-to-day scenes and Mesopotamian gods. At a Christie's auction, agents found a bead necklace dating back to 2500 BC, possibly from the royal tombs of Ur, an ancient Sumerian city.

A 2006 FBI task force investigated defense contractors suspected of bribery and fraud also discovered some were also collecting and smuggling Iraqi artifacts into the United States.

Through the investigation, agents discovered the terra cotta pieces which the FBI Art Crime Team verified as authentic.

"In addition to identifying a significant contract fraud scheme, we get to return to the people of Iraq these priceless, ancient artifacts," said Ronald Hosko, Special Agent in Charge of the Criminal Division at the FBI's Washington Field Office.

Other pieces were discovered on Craigslist, an Internet advertising service.

In September 2010, undercover agents contacted an antiques seller, then a member of the U.S. Army, advertising on the site.

Agents met him in his home, where he showed off a thick slab of marble from Saddam Hussein's palace in Baghdad. Before the piece was seized, the man explained he bought the marble from a vendor in Iraq.

The United States has returned about 1,200 artifacts to Iraq, said Kumar Kibble, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The value of the returned items has not been determined, and not all of them were priceless.

Hosko explained that a few of the pieces were not confirmed as authentic, and maybe only worth a couple of dollars.

More modern pieces returned included Ba'ath government relics such as a tea set, a seal dedicated to martyrs of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and posters of toppled leader Saddam Hussein.

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)