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Iraq museum pays smugglers for looted treasures

From Arwa Damon, CNN
December 13, 2011 -- Updated 1647 GMT (0047 HKT)
  • Selmani museum in Kurdistan is paying smugglers to return looted treasure
  • Controversial move as international museum community don't usually buy back artifacts
  • UNESCO says paying for stolen objects can encourage looting to continue

(CNN) -- Iraq's second largest museum in Sulaimaniya is recovering stolen artifacts by paying smugglers to return the treasures.

Located in the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, the Slemani Museum has taken drastic measures to refill display cabinets following looting.

"The position of not just UNESCO but the international museum community is that we don't buy back looted objects because it encourages looting. Simple. Full stop," says Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaimaniya Museum Project.

"The Kurdish authorities took a very difficult and I must admit a very courageous position and they said we are going to buy these objects," he added.

Iraq has struggled with looters, most notably in 2003 when thieves sacked the National Museum in Baghdad stealing treasures dating thousands of years to the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia.

Original estimates said 170,000 pieces had been looted from the museum. However, authorities say it was closer to around 15,000 artifacts, of which 6,000 had been recovered by the time the museum reopened in 2009.

The Kurdish authorities took a very difficult and I must admit a very courageous position and they said we are going to buy these objects
Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaimaniya Museum Project

While paying smugglers for the return of lost treasures is a controversial move on the part of the museum, it seems to have worked in this instance. One of the recently-recovered artifacts is an ancient democratic text that smugglers asked just $600 for.

"It's a full Sumerian text written during the old Babylonian period, around 1,800-900 B.C.," says Dr. Farouk Al-Rawi, a professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"It is the first document to tell us about democracy. It concerns the establishment of two assemblies," he added.

The return of this tablet to the museum is ironic considering that thousands of years later, Iraq is still trying to establish a semblance of a democracy.

Despite the Slemani Museum's unorthodox move, smuggling has decreased in the region in part due to the growing awareness of the problem and a joint effort by authorities. But organizations say more help is needed to stop thieves.

The museum's director Hashim Abdulla says that in the region of Kurdistan there are still thousands of undiscovered sites yet to be excavated.

He points out a recent site in a small village 20 minutes outside of Sulaimaniya. Artifacts at this location have dated back to the Assyrian period, almost 3,000 years ago.

Under Kurdistan regional governmental laws the site should become a protected area but in reality in many cases those laws are too difficult to implement.

Lauren Said-Moorhouse contributed to this report.

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