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Interpol hunts stolen Iraqi art

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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LYON, France (CNN) -- Interpol has formed a team to track down art and antiquities dating back thousands of years that have been stolen from Iraqi cultural institutions, including the country's national museum in Baghdad.

The international police agency made the announcement Friday, the day after a panel of antiquities experts said it suspected some of the looting had been "commissioned" by collectors who had anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The team will meet officials in Kuwait later this month to determine exactly what has been stolen before traveling on to Baghdad. FBI agents from the U.S. are also being sent to Iraq to assist with criminal investigations against anyone suspected of involvement in the looting. (Full story)

Interpol, based in Lyon, France, said it had told police in its 181 member countries to make border guards, customs authorities, art dealers, auction houses, and the wider public aware of the situation.

"The conflict in Iraq has unfortunately resulted in large-scale destruction and theft of the cultural heritage of the country," said Karl-Heinz Kind, the agency's specialist in the theft of art and antiquities.

"Interpol is calling on organizations and institutions involved in conservation and trade of antiquities to categorically decline any offers of cultural property originating from Iraq," he added.

"In case of doubts concerning the origin of certain items, these bodies should immediately contact Interpol and seek expert evaluation of what is being offered for sale." (Looting 'commissioned')

A meeting of experts and other interested parties, including representatives from the United Nations, the International Council of Museums and the World Customs Organization, will take place in Lyon between May 5 and May 6, to determine a strategy to deal with the thefts, Interpol said.

Much of the looted treasures could surface in London, one of the world's largest centers for trade in Islamic art, said Dick Ellis, an expert in recovering stolen art.

"The first thing to do is to assess what has been stolen and create a circular of the key objects and get it into the marketplace to close down the market," he said.

U.N. officials say they warned the United States government several months in advance of the war that the museum and other cultural institutions were at risk.

The U.S. has also been widely criticized for having taken steps to protect Iraqi oil fields but failing to take similar steps to protect the Iraqi National Museum.

The chairman of a committee that advises the White House on protecting antiquities around the world has resigned over what he says is the U.S. failure to stop the looting. (Full Story)

In a letter sent to U.S. President George W. Bush, Martin Sullivan, who headed the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee said the "tragedy was foreseeable and preventable."

"While our military forces have displayed extraordinary precision and restraint in deploying arms -- and apparently in securing the Oil Ministry and oil fields -- they have been nothing short of impotent in failing to attend to the protection of (Iraq's) cultural heritage," Sullivan said in his letter.

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