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U.S. Returns Thousands Of Smuggled Ancient Artifacts To Iraq

Looted artifacts recovered from Islamic State fighters are seen at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2015.

About 3,800 ancient artifacts that were illegally smuggled out of Iraq and sold to the U.S. Hobby Lobby store chain were returned on May 2.

U.S. customs officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, where some of the artifacts were laid out on a table.

Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities and pay $3 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, court documents say.

Hobby Lobby's president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. The company has said the Iraqi artifacts were not intended for the museum.

Forfeited items include tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets came from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C.

U.S. officials say Hobby Lobby's 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was "fraught with red flags" indicating that the items could have been taken illegally from archaeological sites in Iraq.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters