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Iraq: U.S. Investigator Says Reports Of Iraqi Museum Looting Were Exaggerated, But Challenges Remain

Matthew Bogdanos is an expert in classical studies, a New York prosecutor, and the U.S. Marine officer who has been assigned to track down the stolen treasures of Iraq's cultural heritage. While Bogdanos says initial estimates of huge losses were exaggerated, a professor of archaeology says no matter how many stolen antiquities are recovered, Iraq's National Museum will probably never be the same.

Washington, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The senior U.S. investigator looking into the theft of treasures from Iraq's National Museum says nearly 1,000 objects have been recovered so far, and that even more items are apparently hidden in secure locations.

U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos spoke from Baghdad on 16 May in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon. Bogdanos says it is still too early to say exactly all of what was stolen from the museum in the days after Baghdad fell on 9 April. But Bogdanos says his investigation has determined that the original estimates of losses were vastly overstated.

"It must be stressed that the loss of a single piece of mankind's shared history is a tragedy. But it is clear that the originally reported number of 170,000 [items] was a gross, if dramatic, exaggeration," Bogdanos says.

Bogdanos says more than 950 items have been recovered so far. Some, he says, were seized by his investigators or returned to his office under an amnesty. Still missing, however, are many other historically significant items, including a vessel known as the Sacred Vase of Warka that is about 5,000 years old.

Bogdanos is the son of Greek immigrants who rose from working in his parents' New York restaurant to a career in the Marines. While in the service, he received two degrees in classical studies and one in law from Columbia University, one of the country's most prestigious universities.

He left the Marines to work as an assistant prosecutor in New York, but remained a reserve officer. He was called back to active duty during the war in Afghanistan to help root out Al-Qaeda and Taliban members. He was recently transferred to Iraq to lead the search for Iraq's looted heritage.

Bogdanos says retrieving the missing objects is more complicated than simply hunting them down or declaring amnesties. He says other obstacles include poor record-keeping at the museum before the war, as well as the politics of fear that dominated Iraq before Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party were ousted.

"From the outset, the investigation has faced several challenges, foremost among them being the museum's manual and incomplete record-keeping or inventory system. The team also struggled with the perception among some of the Iraqi people that the museum was associated with both the former regime and the Ba'ath Party," Bogdanos says.

Bogdanos notes that much of the looting at the museum was confined to its administrative offices, not the museum itself, indicating that looters were interested more in mundane objects like furniture and computers.

On the other hand, Bogdanos says, one area of the museum complex where priceless objects were stolen showed evidence that it had been breached by professional thieves. This was one of the museum's basement-level storage areas.

"The evidence here strongly suggests that this [basement-level] magazine, or storage room, was compromised, or entered, not by random looters but by thieves with an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices. For it is here that they attempted to steal the most traffickable and easily transportable items stored in the most remote corner of the museum," he says.

Meanwhile, Bogdanos says his 14 investigators have no access to almost 7,000 additional pieces of Iraq's past that are reportedly being held in two underground vaults in the country's central bank.

He says the museum staff has provided him with an inventory of these items, but that there is no way to establish its reliability until the vaults are opened. He says his investigators have no authority to open them and that he does not yet know who has that authority.

According to Bogdanos, there is yet another site where he believes ancient Iraqi artifacts are being held for safekeeping.

"The investigation also [learned of] the existence of a secret or protected storage location used by the [museum] staff since 1990. Museum officials admit several members of their staff know of its existence but are sworn to secrecy, vowing not to divulge its location until a new government in Iraq is established and U.S. forces leave the country," he says.

Bogdanos says he is reluctant to get these staff members to break their oaths, which he says were made on the Koran.

Eric Cline, an assistant professor of ancient history and archaeology at the Washington-based George Washington University, says he wishes Bogdanos good luck in the search for looted Iraqi antiquities. But Cline says Bogdanos' task may be impossible to accomplish completely, given problems with record-keeping. He says that appears to stem from the country's financial problems since the 1991 Gulf War.

"From what I understand, the stuff that was there [in the museum] from before 1990, I think, it was very well organized. But since the first Gulf War, from the reports that I've heard, they had neither the staff, nor the expertise, nor the time, nor the money to actually catalog these things and record their existence," Cline says.

Cline says he has heard reports -- which he cannot confirm -- that Hussein not only ordered some of his country's treasures hidden away but also had them sold. That, he says, will make it difficult to organize a complete restoration of the museum.

Still, according to Cline, it appears that Bogdanos and his investigators will meet with some success in restoring Iraq's National Museum, not only as a repository for the earliest artifacts of humankind but also as an attraction for the casual visitor, and as a rewarding research center for scholars.

"They won't be able to restore it, but they'll be able to get it back to -- hopefully -- within a reasonable facsimile of what it once was," he says.

But Cline emphasizes that this is only his best guess. He says he will be eager to visit Baghdad someday to find out for himself whether Bogdanos was able to restore the institution back to its former glory.