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Experts count Iraq cultural losses

Looters ransacked the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad.
Looters ransacked the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad.

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Looting of Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad prompts criticism of U.S. forces.
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PARIS, France -- A group of cultural experts from Iraq and world cultural experts will gather later this week to evaluate the extent of looting in Iraqi museums and cultural institutions and draw up plans for preserving the battered nation's cultural heritage.

The group of about 30 experts will meet Thursday at the headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France and will develop recommendations on how to proceed.

The officials will attempt to make an inventory of lost objects, some of which curators believe were seized by professional art thieves during a wave of looting that swept Baghdad following the U.S.-led overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime.

UNESCO and the British Museum are also both sending teams of professional to Iraq to assess the damage and help with restoration work once the city is deemed safe enough for this to happen.

On Tuesday UNESCO Director-General Ko´chiro Matsuura called on U.S. and British authorities "to take immediate measures of protection and surveillance of Iraqi archaeological sites and cultural institutions."

He urged bordering countries, international police, customs organizations and top art market officials to work with UNESCO in a "comprehensive mobilization so that stolen objects should not find their way to acquirers."

The destruction, damage and theft of artifacts took place primarily in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, the agency said.

Matsuura also warned of the devastation and looting of libraries, archives and manuscripts.

"Nearly 20 centuries of written history of mankind are in danger; everything must be done to protect them from looting and destruction," he said.

"Measures must be taken to protect governmental records that are held by archives, since they are vital for the functioning of public administration after the war, for example, to protect the legal, financial and contractual rights of Iraqi citizens."

The United States has expressed sympathy over the plunder of the Iraqi National Museum last week but denied that its war plan had not adequately prepared for such an eventuality.

Responding to critics Tuesday U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that the United States had offered rewards for return of the artifacts and for information on their whereabouts, and he suggested museum officials had hidden some treasures ahead of the war for safety, Reuters reported.

"I would suspect that over time we will find that a number of the things were, in fact, hidden prior to the conflict," he said. "That's what most people who run museums do prior to a conflict which was obviously well-publicized well in advance," he said.

Antiquities experts, however, have expressed dismay that U.S. officials failed to heed their warnings to protect Baghdad's artifacts.

U.S. archeological organizations and UNESCO said they had provided U.S. officials with information about Iraq's cultural heritage and archeological sites months before the war began.

The U.S. military says it had been given a list of archeological sites in and around Baghdad and it had tried to avoid hitting them.

Not anticipated

But the military admits it failed to anticipate Iraq's cultural riches would be looted by its own people.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Tuesday that forces entering Baghdad were involved in "very intense combat," and in removing the regime and conducting military operations, a "vacuum" was created. (Full story)

On Monday U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell promised that the United States would work to track down objects looted from Iraq's museums and help restore damaged pieces.

Meanwhile, the curators of the Baghdad museum have told CNN they now believe, because of some of the evidence that they have found, that some of the items were taken by professional art thieves.

CNN's Jim Clancy reports one of the things that was taken was a bronze bust dating back about 7,000 years.

It weighed hundreds of kilograms and was taken off the second floor.

The curators say no normal looters would have had access to the the equipment needed to remove and transport such an object. (On the scene)

Reuters contributed to this report.

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