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U.S. Returns Dozens Of Artifacts To Iraqi Government

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Today, the U.S. government returned more than 60 antiquities to the government of Iraq. The cultural treasures - some dating back more than 4,000 years - were looted from Iraq and smuggled into the United States. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, it's taken special agents several years to identify the artifacts and uncover the smuggling networks.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Perhaps the most spectacular item on display at a handover ceremony today at the Iraqi Embassy here in Washington is the head of a limestone statue representing Assyrian King Sargon II. It's part of a lamassu where the head sits upon a winged bull. It's similar to one seen in a recent video shot in Iraq, which shows militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State destroying the face with electric drills.

This head is in very good condition. It was recovered during an operation called lost treasure. Sarah Saldana, the assistant secretary of homeland security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says special agents received a tip in June 2008.

SARAH SALDANA: That an antiquities dealer based in Dubai was selling looted Iraqi antiquities to dealers all around the world. The special agents seized the limestone statue on - in August 2008 after it was shipped to New York by a Dubai-based antiquities trading company owned by that antiques dealer.

NORTHAM: Saldana says the investigation uncovered more than just the limestone statue.

SALDANA: This investigation identified a broad, transnational criminal organization dealing in illicit cultural property. Some of the network's shipments were directly linked to major museums, galleries and art houses in New York.

NORTHAM: That information, in turn, also helped with a case called the mummy's curse. The operation netted most of the items now being returned to Iraq, including ancient swords, clay reliefs and glass vessels along with a more recent door knocker and water urn belonging to the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. One item was found on Craigslist. Senior Special Agent Brenton Easter says looted items will often stay in the Middle East until things cool off.

BRENTON EASTER: That material wouldn't necessarily hit the open market for five to 10 years because the dealers are smart enough to know that they don't want to actively and openly be participating in something that's illegal.

NORTHAM: Five people have been arrested so far in the two cases. Easter says agents with Homeland Security investigations deal with a raft of international experts to help trace the stolen goods - important because antiquities continue to be looted in Iraq.

EASTER: We are getting a good handle on the pieces as they are being looted before they hit the market. And we are creating a database where we will be able to identify these pieces when they do with the market five to 10 years from now.

NORTHAM: In the meantime, the dozens of antiquities are on their way home to Iraq. Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., says the Iraqi government is not worried about their safety once they're back in Baghdad.

LUKMAN FAILY: No, certainly not - no. Everything goes to the vault of our museums and others. We are fairly confident about that.

NORTHAM: These latest artifacts are among more than 1,200 relics that have already been returned to Iraq since 2008. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.