Ancient treasures stolen from museums in the anarchic aftermath of the
United States-led invasion of Iraq five years ago have been found in Basra, in one of the biggest recoveries of the loot.
About 230 of the priceless artefacts were saved as they were about to
be smuggled abroad in a "sting" operation organised by investigators.
Seven members of the gang, which is said to have specialised in trafficking the country's stolen antiquities, have been arrested and are being questioned. They are also suspected of being involved in the systematic stripping of archaeological sites.
During the investigation, conducted by Iraqi and British security forces, ancient items destined for private collectors in the Middle
East and the West were found buried in gardens and hidden under floors in houses in the suburbs of Basra.
According to Iraqi authorities, they included Sumerian and Babylonian
sculpture, intricate gold jewellery, decorative silverware and ceramic
The artefacts have been sent to Baghdad for analysis and to ascertain their origins.
Iraq's museums and archaeological sites - including the National Museum in Baghdad, established by British traveller, writer, political analyst and administrator Gertrude Bell, which opened shortly before her
death in 1926 - were plundered as the country descended into chaos. More
than 20,000 items, some of the most precious antiquities in the world,
At the time Dr Donny George, the director of research for the Board of
Antiquities in Iraq, went to the Palestine Hotel, where US Marines had set up headquarters, to plead for troops to protect the museum. None were sent for three days.
Later, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, described the days of looting and arson in the Iraqi capital as "untidiness", and said of the sacking of the National Museum: "To try to pass off the fact of that unfortunate activity to a deficit in the war plan strikes me as a stretch."
Museums in Basra and Mosul, Iraq's second- and third-largest cities, were also looted.
Much of the heritage of of Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilisation, disappeared as thieves turned to the archaeological
Some of the stolen artefacts were recovered in Iraq and outside the
The National Museum has recovered around 3500 of its 15,000 stolen artefacts.