Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi returned from meeting US president Joe Biden in Washington this week bearing 17,000 archaeological treasures from ancient Mesopotamia looted over the past three decades.
"This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq, " said Iraqi culture minister Hassan Nazim, revealing that the restoration was "the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington".
Most of the items are connected with trade during the Sumarian period, the earliest civilisation in southern Mesopotamia dating from 4500-1900 BC.
“I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially [those] in Europe,” Mr Nazim added.
While 12,500 archaeological sites have been officially designated as part of Iraq's cultural heritage, there are hundreds of unexcavated sites. Looting began after the 1991 US war, when Baghdad was struggling to rebuild infrastructure and could no longer provide protection for its archeological treasures, and ballooned after the chaos and unrest following the 2003 US occupation.
The 95-year-old Iraq Museum in Baghdad lost up to 19,000 pieces to looters while many of the other 15 museums suffered major losses.
Looting has been both opportunistic and systematic, carried out by local farmers and villagers hired by smugglers and their agents, US soldiers and contractors, and armed groups. Islamic State (also known as Isis) made millions of dollars by harvesting archaeological sites and transporting artefacts to international dealers via intermediaries in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
“It’s impossible to quantify the number of pieces that have been stolen from archaelogical sites,” said Qahtan al-Obaid, antiquities director at Basra’s pillaged museum.
Notable among the items rescued for repatriation is a rare 3,500-year-old clay tablet referring to a flood – likely the Biblical flood – etched in cuneiform script in the epic of Gilgamesh.
The 15 x 12cm fragment was seized by the US justice department in 2019 from Washington's Museum of the Bible, which was founded by evangelical billionaire David Green, owner of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores.
The tablet, purchased for $1.67 million, was among thousands of items confiscated from Hobby Lobby and the museum. The tablet was given false documents to disguise its provenance when repeatedly put up for sale.
Hobby Lobby acquired it from a New York auction house, which the firm is suing for restitution.
US government attorneys sued Hobby Lobby in 2017 under a law adopted in 2004 designed to protect Iraqi antiquities from looting after 1990. More than 3,800 items were returned to Iraq in 2018, the company paid a $3 million fine, and agreed to federal monitoring.