US forces return Iraq treasures looted by extremists

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Tom Coghlan
The Times
US ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones and Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Adel Fahad Shershab, at a ceremony celebrating the return of the stolen treasures. Source: AFP
Hundreds of antiquities looted from Baghdad museum after the 2003 US invasion have been recovered during a US special forces raid that killed an Islamic State commander.

The US Delta Force operation in May found nearly 500 artefacts, including early Islamic coins, metallic bracelets, ancient cylindrical stamps, pottery, glass shards and royal seals used by the ancient Assyrian kings of Nimrud.

The treasures were returned to the museum on Wednesday. Some have been identified as pieces that disappeared amid an orgy of looting in the chaotic first few days after the US-led invasion of 2003.

How they ended up in the possession of the Isis “oil minister” — a militant known as Abu Sayyaf — remains unclear. Abu Sayyaf, whose real name is believed to have been Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad, was a Tunisian militant who held a senior position in the Isis terror network, according to the American government. He was killed when US Delta Force commandos launched a rare ground operation inside Syria. His wife was captured in the operation near the city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, about 60 miles from the border with Iraq.

The forces also rescued a Yazidi woman kept by the couple as a slave. At the time, it was claimed that the raid produced a wealth of intelligence.

American officials said that the discovery of the lost treasures proved that IS was involved in smuggling antiquities to help finance their forces.

“This is the first tangible evidence that Daesh are selling artefacts to fund their activities,” said Stuart Jones, the American ambassador in Baghdad, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. He was speaking to reporters at Baghdad’s national museum. “Their goal is to sell these antiquities on the global black market,” he said. “Daesh is stealing your antiquities and we are giving them back to you.”

IS has overrun hundreds of important archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq. Some have been plundered, others deliberately destroyed by the jihadists, who claimed that they were ungodly and idolatrous.

IS militants have desecrated Assyrian and Greco-Roman sites in Iraq, including the 2,700-year-old Assyrian capital city of Khorsabad and the ancient sites of Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra. In May the Islamist forces captured the UN World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria.

Iraqi officials have questioned why the US has not used air strikes to protect the sites. However, the US ambassador said that in the absence of ground forces such operations would have little value.

Mr Jones said: “The coalition does not have boots on the ground and certainly using air strikes on targets like that can be damaging to the patrimony of Iraq. The campaign to return all of Iraq’s treasures continues.”

The Times