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Antiquities experts: Some looting was 'commissioned'

Experts call for ban on export of Iraqi cultural objects

Civilians inspect Torah scrolls in a vault of Iraq's National Museum after looters broke in and went on a rampage.
Civilians inspect Torah scrolls in a vault of Iraq's National Museum after looters broke in and went on a rampage.

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CNN's Jim Bittermann reports historians claim U.S. troops could have done more to protect Iraqi museums.
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Looting of Iraq's National Museum prompts criticism of U.S. forces.
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- A panel of antiquities experts said Thursday it suspected some of the recent looting of Iraqi museums had been "commissioned" by collectors who had anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

In addition, the panel of 30 scholars called for an immediate ban on the export of Iraqi antiques and historical objects.

They called for a crackdown on collectors, saying they suspect many of the stolen articles could end up in the United States.

The call was issued the same day that the FBI announced agents are being sent to Iraq to assist with criminal investigations against people who looted museums and other sites.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told a news briefing Thursday that the FBI also is assisting in the recovery of stolen items, and the United States has issued Interpol alerts to all nations regarding artifacts that may be sold on open or black markets. (Full story)

The experts on Iraqi antiquities, who met at the headquarters for the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris, France, recommended a fact-finding mission should be dispatched to Baghdad immediately to determine the extent of the recent looting and pillaging of Iraqi cultural institutions, including the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.

The group said there were two kinds of looting in Iraq -- simple vandalism and organized thefts that were planned in anticipation of the fall of Saddam's regime.

While the panel members said they had no proof, they suspected some of the looting was "commissioned theft" in which collectors arranged for precious items to be stolen for a fee. They noted thieves had keys to vaults inside the Iraqi National Museum.

The scholars called on the United States to take full responsibility for safekeeping what cultural treasures are left, saying any further looting of Iraq's cultural treasures would be "totally inexcusable."

The scholars again blamed the United States military for ignoring repeated warnings that looting would take place.

McGuire Gibson, a professor at the University of Chicago, said that from January onward he had warned the Pentagon that looting was a real possibility and had urged special measures to prevent it.

"I was dreading it, and when I saw it, you just are totally devastated. Then I got very angry about the whole thing," said Gibson. "It should not have happened. It need not have happened."

Another panel member said, "It would only have taken one tank in front of the National Museum to stop it."

The U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said that when U.S. troops initially entered Baghdad, fighting did not permit troops to be deployed to protect the museums and libraries.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the Central Command spokesman, admitted the military underestimated the extent Iraqis were willing to loot their own cultural treasures.

The United States has received widespread criticism in Europe, as well as in Iraq, for having taken steps to protect Iraqi oil fields but failing to take similar steps to protect the museums in Baghdad that house treasures dating back thousands of years.

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

"Nearly 20 centuries of written history of mankind are in danger. Everything must be done to protect them from looting and destruction," Ko´chiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, 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."

CNN's Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.

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