Trade in stolen Iraqi treasures fuels al-Qaida

The flourishing underground trade in Iraqi antiquities is helping fund insurgents in the war-torn country, the man credited with saving thousands of treasures plundered from the National Museum of Iraq said yesterday.

Nearly five years after looters ransacked the museum in Baghdad, al-Qaida and Shia militias are using the spoils to finance terror operations.

“Trafficking in Iraqi antiquities is funding individuals who are killing people in the streets and detonating the bombs,” said Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, the US marine who was in charge of recovering stolen works in the six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“What is happening in Iraq highlights the lie to the age-old deception that antiquities trafficking is some benign activity,” the reserve marine told the Guardian in Athens. “Kidnappings and extortion may be their main source of funding, but it is naive to think insurgents are not getting a major share of the loot.”

There was also evidence that the country’s 12,000 poorly guarded archaeological sites were being systematically plundered, he said, including Mesopotamian relics of unrivalled historic and aesthetic value, and the failure to protect Iraq’s artistic heritage had fuelled a growing sense across the Middle East that the west was only interested in its own culture.

“Not enough is being done to stop it,” he said, in the Greek capital attending a Unesco-organised international conference on the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin.“This is a highly lucrative, global criminal enterprise. Informants say that once antiquities leave Iraq, they generally head overland to Jordan or Syria and then on to cities like Beirut and Geneva to obtain documents that will ‘certify’ them.” An estimated 15,000 treasures were plundered in April 2003 and only 4,000 had been recovered, he said. Dealers and private collectors had fuelled the trade.