Iraqi police on Tuesday seized a small cache of ancient statues and other artifacts in the south of the country, officials said, after authorities feared the items would be smuggled abroad.

A police official said the 29 artifacts were discovered hidden near a shrine outside the southern city of Nasiriyah. They included statues and shards with writing on them dating back to the ancient Sumerian civilization, which is more than 4,000 years old.

He said a tip-off led police to believe the pieces were going to be smuggled to Iran.

A government official who works with the archaeology department confirmed the seizure.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Iraqi law says all artifacts over 200 years have to be handed over to the Iraqi government for inspection. The country is dotted with ancient archaeological sites that have little or no protection.

The U.S. military was heavily criticized for not protecting the National Museum's treasure of relics and art following Baghdad's fall in 2003. Thieves ransacked the collection, stealing or destroying priceless artifacts that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.

Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures but met with little success. Up to 7,000 pieces were still believed missing when the museum reopened last year.

A U.S. military officer said the sale of stolen antiquities is believed to have helped finance Iraqi extremist groups.