PARIS – Experts say that what seemed like random looting in Baghdad — the pillaging of treasures dating back 5,000 years in human history — was in fact a carefully planned theft, and the stolen artifacts may already be in the system that traffics in stolen artifacts to collectors in Europe, the United States and Japan.
FBI agents, meanwhile, have been sent to Iraq to help recover the stolen antiquities, while in Washington, three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee resigned to protest the looting, which they blamed on inaction on the part of the United States.
"It looks as if part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action," said McGuire Gibson, president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad.
"They were able to obtain keys from somewhere for the vaults and were able to take out the very important, the very best material," Gibson said. "I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was."
Gibson was among 30 art experts and cultural historians assembled by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to assess the damage to Iraq's heritage in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.
The bandits were so efficient at emptying Iraqi libraries and Baghdad's National museums that reports have already surfaced of artifacts appearing on the black market, some experts said.
The FBI is putting alerts on the international police network about the stolen pieces and scanning the Internet to see if any are advertised for sale.
"We are firmly committed to doing whatever we can to secure these treasures to the people of Iraq," FBI Director Robert Mueller said.
But it remained unclear exactly what was gone and what survived the looting and thievery. With many museum records now in ashes and access to Iraq still cut off, it could take weeks or months to find out.
Establishing a database was a key to finding out what had survived, and tracking down what was stolen, the experts said.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said some of the greatest treasures — including gold jewelry of the Assyrian queens — were placed in the vaults of the national bank after the 1991 Gulf War. There was no information on whether those items remained inside.
It was unknown whether one of its greatest treasures of the looted National Museum, tablets containing Hammurabi's Code — one of the earliest codes of law — were there when the looting began. The museum is one of the most important and largest repositories of antiquities in the Middle East.
Before the war, Iraq's antiquities' authorities gathered artifacts from around the country and moved them to Baghdad's museum, assuming it would not be bombed, Gibson said.
"They did not count on the museum being looted," he said.
The network of antiquities dealing in Iraq is well-developed, escalating far beyond the ability of authorities to stop it after the 1991 Gulf War. Thousands of antiquities had disappeared from the country even before the current war.
The trafficking feeds off Iraqi poverty, said Salma El Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist. "If you need to feed your family and the only way to do it is by looting a site, you're going to loot a site," El Radi said.
Much anger has been directed at U.S. troops, who stood by and watched as Iraq's treasures were carted off.
In Washington, the three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee said they resigned in disappointment that the U.S. military failed to protect Iraq's historical treasures.
"The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction," Martin E. Sullivan, the committee's chairman, wrote in his letter of resignation.
The other two members who resigned were Richard S. Lanier and Gary Vikan. All three had been appointed by former President Clinton.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the United States worked hard to preserve Iraq's resources.
"It is unfortunate that there was looting and damage done," she said.
Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of Paris-based UNESCO, called for a U.N. resolution imposing a temporary embargo on trade in Iraqi antiquities. Such a resolution would also call for the return of such items to Iraq, he said.