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542 antiquities looted in Iraq war return home. Where are the rest?

Officials triumphed in Monday's return of everything from gold earrings to a sacred statue looted in the Iraq war. But they also said that 632 pieces returned last year have gone missing.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / September 7, 2010

Artefacts are displayed at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Baghdad Tuesday.The headless statue of a Sumerian king and more than 500 other artefacts looted from Iraq's museum and archaeological sites during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have been returned home, officials said Tuesday.

Mohammed Ameen/Reuters

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Baghdad

Gold earrings made for an Assyrian queen, a sacred 4,000-year-old statue, and 540 other looted pieces of Iraq’s ancient history were formally returned to Iraq on Monday in what was billed as a triumph of justice and international cooperation.

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“This is a very happy day – we are making progress in the very important field of returning Iraqi history to its rightful home,” said Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaidaie, who said the objects had been found through a combination of Iraqi and American efforts. “Iraq cannot be summarized by 30 years of problems and wars – it can stand and it can reclaim its history.”

He noted, however, that a previous shipment of 632 stolen pieces recovered in the US had gone missing after being delivered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office last year.

The looting of the Iraq museum was one of the most controversial moments in the early part of the war. US troops sent in to topple Saddam Hussein and secure the city had no orders to protect the museum or other cultural institutions. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of pieces of Iraq’s history were looted while other cultural institutions were burned.

Monday's return of more than 542 involved countries including Syria, Germany, and Turkey – as well as the United States, operating through a dozen different government agencies – and was hailed as a significant achievement.

“This goes back to the most sensitive nerve in the Iraqi psyche,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Monitor. “These are antiquities that have been stolen from the museum and now to get them back is a healing process – that we, your sons, the government, the embassies the ministries are able to bring them back is very, very important.”

Another 632 recovered pieces are now missing

Each of the recovered pieces has a story to it. But in a twist worthy of a detective novel, Mr. Sumaidaie noted the missing shipment of the 632 recovered looted pieces sent back from the US. Because of Baghdad's precarious security, the Iraqi ambassador said he had arranged with Gen. David Petraeus to have them returned.

“We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them,” Sumadaie told diplomats and journalists gathered at the Foreign Ministry.

The pointed comment by the nonpartisan ambassador was seen as an effort to put pressure on an unresponsive prime minister's office to either produce or account for the artifacts.

The pieces signed for at the prime ministry were mostly cylinder seals – ancient carved stone cylinders used as personal signatures – and other small items, but Iraqi authorities have not been able to get an answer as to what has happened to them, he told the Monitor.

Prime Minister Maliki’s office could not be reached for comment.

Too dangerous to display them in museum

Many of the more than 540 recovered items have been at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington over the past two years, waiting for security to improve in the Iraqi capital as well as for the bureaucratic requirements involved in shipping the pieces to be worked out.

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