21 years after U.S.-led invasion, Iraq strives to retrieve looted antiquities

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This photo taken on May 17, 2024 shows exhibits at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Iraq. (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)

As the world celebrates International Museum Day on Saturday, Iraq remains haunted by the poignant scars of looted antiquities in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

Boasting an ancient civilization of thousands of years, Iraq has abundant archeological treasures. However, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing chaos and instability created an opportunity for robbers and lawbreakers to plunder and smuggle Iraqi antiquities from museums and unprotected archeological sites.

In the first days of the U.S.-led coalition forces’ occupation of Baghdad in 2003, thousands of priceless artifacts were systematically looted from the Iraq Museum.

Adel al-Mubarak, an archaeologist and history teacher at Baghdad-based al-Iraqia University, told Xinhua that the U.S. forces were stationed in the Alawi district in downtown Baghdad, where the museum is located.

“They did not protect the museum from organized gangs and thieves,” al-Mubarak recalled.

According to al-Mubarak, there are approximately 15,000 lost objects, many of which have yet to be returned.

The irresponsible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 led to a sudden security vacuum, offering a respite for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group to develop and grow, which took control of large swathes of land in northern and western Iraq in 2014.

Following its expansion, media video showed IS fighters destroying the Mosul Museum and the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud in Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, where they also smuggled numerous historical relics.

These years, through concerted efforts of relevant domestic institutions and coordination with other nations, Iraq managed to regain some of the looted and smuggled antiquities.

“Through effective international cooperation with friendly and brotherly nations and the mobilization of our diplomatic missions in various parts of the world, Iraq has been able to reclaim thousands of archeological pieces, manuscripts, books, and illustrious paintings,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Despite the achievements made in the past years, al-Mubarak said there are still major challenges facing the Iraqi authorities, including continued thefts and random excavations, especially in archeological sites far from urban areas or in places unregulated by the government.

“The protection of the archeological sites also requires financial, personnel, and logistical support from the government,” the archaeologist noted.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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