LONDON – Scotland Yard has a new mystery: the case of the London mayor and the red leather Iraqi cigar box.
British police confirmed Tuesday they are examining an Iraqi cigar case belonging to London mayor Boris Johnson to determine whether it is a looted Iraqi artifact. Johnson says he handed over the case, which once belonged to Saddam Hussein's deputy, on Monday.
Johnson, a Conservative politician, journalist and sometime TV quiz-show host who was elected mayor last month, says he took the case in 2003 from the bombed-out home of former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz.
In a column for Tuesday's Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson said he had found the case a few days after Baghdad fell to American forces. Johnson, then working as a journalist, said he was taken to Aziz's ransacked villa: "And there, just by my toe, protruding from beneath a piece of dusty plywood, was the cigar case."
Johnson said "the circumstances in which I came by this object were so morally ambiguous that I cannot quite think of it as theft." He said he later received a letter from Aziz's lawyers saying the former politician wanted Johnson to consider the case a gift.
The mayor called the investigation "ludicrous" and a waste of police time.
The Metropolitan Police force confirmed it was investigating the cigar case, which "is believed to be a piece of Iraqi cultural property" and would keep the item as long as the inquiry was going.
Under Britain's Iraq (U.N. sanctions) Order 2003, anyone possessing Iraqi cultural property must hand it over to the police. Failing to do so is considered an offense, unless the person can prove they were unaware that the property was illegally removed from the country.
Aziz was one of Saddam's best-known lieutenants, and became internationally known as Saddam's defender after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War. He has been in custody in Iraq since 2003.
The force did not say how the case had come to its attention but said it had written to Johnson on Feb. 21 asking that he hand it over. Johnson said he believed members of Britain's governing Labour Party had told police about the cigar case, although he wrote about it himself in a May 2003 newspaper article.
Labour Party lawmaker Steve Pound said Johnson's vow to be tough on crime as mayor rang hollow in light of his "pilfering."
"Boris has been banging on from day one about zero tolerance, but zero tolerance seems to be a selective concept," Pound said.
Johnson conceded there was "something magnificent in the very absurdity" of the situation.
"Well, I suppose we should be grateful for one thing," he wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "It seems that a Western politician is finally going to pay the price for his involvement in the Iraq war."