By Tara Longardner
WASHINGTON– American officials on Monday returned 65 historical artifacts to Iraq that had been illegally smuggled into the United States.
These are just some of the thousands of artifacts stolen from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites by various groups since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
Recently, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has continued to destroy Iraq’s monuments and vandalize antiquities, including some that are central to Muslim beliefs.
“The American people stand with the brave people of Iraq in their battle against ISIL and other terrorists who only know how to destroy and deny our humanity,” said Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
The repatriation comes as part of the U.S.-Iraq Agreed Framework Agreement, meant to increase cooperation between the two countries to preserve cultural tradition.
The objects were seized as result of five separate investigations led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Last month, ISIL released a video of its fighters using hammers and drills to destroy statues in a museum in Mosul, which ISIL has occupied since it took over the city last summer.
Among the ruined statues was a large Assyrian winged bull from the 9th Century B.C. that represents Lamassu, a protective deity.
The extremist group also destroyed the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud earlier this month.
“Iraq’s glorious past is very much a part of the present we all share today,” Ryan said at a press conference at the Consulate of Iraq. “We will work to make sure that no gangs or criminal thugs can erase that.”
One of the most significant items in the repatriation is a limestone fragmentary head of Lamassu taken from the Palace of Assyrian King Sargon II.
As part of “Operation Lost Treasure,” special agents from ICE’s New York office seized the statue from a collector who had bought it from a Dubai antiquities dealer. The dealer falsely declared to customs that the statue was from Turkey, not Iraq, and valued at $6,500. The real value is $1-2 million.
Other items recovered include swords, daggers and an ax found in a Craigslist post, gold-plated items from Hussein’s private airport and palace, and 76 objects smuggled into U.S. antique markets by a transnational criminal organization.
“These ancient items we are returning do not belong in the hands of any private collection or any one owner,” said ICE Director Sarah Saldaña. “ICE will not allow the illicit greed of some to trump the cultural history of an entire nation.”
Lukman Faily, the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, was also part of the event, where the artifacts were displayed.
“Our relationship over the last decade has been in transformation,” Faily said. “What we see today is a significant sign that the cooperation between the two countries is multi-dimensional.”
These items now will go to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which reopened to the public last month after being closed 12 years.
This is America’s fifth repatriation since 2007, bringing the total to more than 78,000 artifacts returned to 30 different countries. ICE agents continue investigations to bring cultural treasures back where they belong.