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Precious Iraq relics found in cesspool

The Akkadian Bassetki was discovered with another treasure in a pool of waste and filth.
The Akkadian Bassetki was discovered with another treasure in a pool of waste and filth.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -- Two priceless pieces of Iraq's ancient heritage, looted from Baghdad's main museum in the chaotic days after Saddam Hussein's fall, have been recovered from a Baghdad cesspool, U.S. officials said.

The Akkadian Bassetki, a copper statue of a seated man dating from 2300 BC, and an ancient Assyrian firebox that a king would have used to keep himself warm were recovered by police investigators, the authorities said Thursday.

The Bassetki statue is considered the most important of Iraq's ancient artworks after the so-called Warka Mask of a Sumerian goddess, recovered earlier this year.

"I would describe this as a spectacular find and we're extremely pleased," John Russell, an art expert who is helping to restore recovered artifacts, told Reuters.

"As far as I can tell their condition is OK, although they still need a bit of cleaning up," Russell said.

No further details were given as to how the pieces were found or who was involved in the investigation.

Investigators believe the Bassetki statue, a 330 pound cast depicting a man sitting with his legs crossed on the ground, was stolen to order, like other highly prized works.

When it was taken it was dragged across the display hall and down the Iraqi National Museum's main staircase, leaving deep gouges in the floor.

The Assyrian brazier, carved in wood and bronze dating from 850 BC, was also highly regarded in the art world and ranked 28 on the list of 30 most important items stolen in Iraq, U.S. authorities said.

While it was initially feared that thousands of ancient pieces of art were stolen during a days-long orgy of looting shortly after Saddam's regime was overthrown in April, experts believe the actual number was much lower.

Of the 42 pieces originally reported missing from the Baghdad museum's public galleries, most have now been recovered and only a very few were damaged.

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Several of the most important works, including the fabled treasures of Nimrud, were removed from the museum and placed in the vault of the central bank ahead of the war.

Before they were discovered there, however, U.S. forces came under severe criticism for not doing enough to protect Babylon's ancient glories and other riches as they focused instead on guarding oil plants and other installations.

"The fact is, the looting of the museum was not nearly as bad as was feared immediately after the war," Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, told a news conference Thursday.

"The number of artifacts left to be recovered are now few."

Cleaning of the Bassetki statue and Assyrian firebox is expected to be finished shortly and the works will be put back on display in a few days, Heatly said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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