BAGHDAD – Iraq's National Museum recovered on Sunday 701 artifacts stolen in the wake of Saddam Hussein's ouster, raising hopes of restoring the nation's rich cultural heritage after five years of war.
Syrian authorities, who seized the looted treasures smuggled across the border, turned them over to the Iraqis, who carefully packed them in 17 boxes and flew them back to Baghdad on Saturday, said Muna Hassan, head of an Iraqi committee working to restore the artifacts.
The golden necklaces, daggers, pots and other artifacts were displayed for journalists during a ceremony attended by Syrian and Iraqi officials at the museum, which remains closed to the public, in central Baghdad.
Widespread looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities following Saddam's ouster in April 2003 depleted the Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.
Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures with little success because of fears they could be lost again amid the rampant violence and the difficulties in documenting the extent of the damage.
Some of the artifacts stolen from Baghdad's museum by looters during the invasion have been returned, including a prized statue of an ancient king — the oldest known representation of the king Entemena of ancient Iraq — in July 2006.
But Hassan said Syria was the first country to return such a large quantity of stolen antiquities and officials hoped others countries would follow its lead.
Syrian authorities said the artifacts were seized from traffickers over the past five years. They said some of the smugglers were arrested but did not say how many.
Mohammad Abbas al-Oreibi, the acting state minister of tourism and archaeology, said he plans to visit Jordan soon to try to persuade authorities to turn over more than 150 items seized there.
"The treasures contain very important and valuable pieces," al-Oreibi said. "This was a positive initiative taken by Syria and we wish the same initiative to be taken by all neighboring countries."
Some of the returned artifacts were copies, while the originals bore serial numbers from the national museum, Hassan said. Other items apparently were unearthed recently in Iraq.
Dr. Emina Idan, the head of state board of antiquities and heritage, said 701 pieces had been returned. The head of the Syrian Antiquities Department, Bassam Jamous, said some of the objects were from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era.
"The most interesting thing is that some of these items contain the IM, Iraqi Museum, number," Idan told reporters.
Between 3,000 to 7,000 pieces are still believed missing, including about 40 to 50 that are considered to be of great historic importance, Laurent Levi-Strauss, chief of the section of museums and cultural objects at U.N. cultural body UNESCO, said last month.
Hassan said negotiations were under way with several countries, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy for the return of more looted antiquities.
Meanwhile, the museum remains closed to the public because of unrelenting violence and continued insecurity and the need for renovation.
The smuggling of stolen antiquities from Iraq's rich cultural heritage is allegedly helping finance Iraqi extremist groups, according to the U.S. investigator who led the initial probe into the looting of Baghdad's National Museum.
Last month, Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos claimed both Sunni insurgents such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias were receiving funding from the trafficking.
It was not clear whether factions in Iraq were actively engaged in smuggling or simply forcing payments from traffickers, whose networks often follow overland routes to Jordan and Syria and then onto cities such as Beirut, Dubai or Geneva.
Although such suspicions of insurgent links to antiquity smuggling has drawn mixed opinions in the past from experts, U.S. Marines in 2006, arrested a group of suspected insurgents in underground bunkers where they found weapons, ammunition and uniforms alongside vases, cylinder seals and statuettes that had been stolen from the National Museum.
The U.S. military was intensely criticized for not protecting the National Museum's treasure of ancient relics and art in the weeks after Baghdad's capture, when looters roamed the city looking for anything of value.
Thieves smashed or pried open row upon row of glass cases and pilfered — or just destroyed — their contents. The museum in the northern city of Mosul also was pillaged, along with Baghdad's National Library.