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Action Urged on Stolen Art

Times Staff Writer

International art experts, convening in a hastily called meeting at the British Museum on Tuesday, urged that Iraq’s frontiers be secured by U.S.-led forces to prevent looted antiquities from being carried out of the country.

Curators and scholars of Middle Eastern antiquities from Western European, American and Russian museums and universities also provided offers of expertise and financing in tracking down and repairing artifacts taken from Iraqi museums after Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled this month.

At a news conference at the meeting, which was co-sponsored by UNESCO, an official at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad renewed charges that American troops failed to safeguard the treasures from looters. Research director Donny George said the troops stood by while looters pillaged the priceless collection, committing what he called “the crime of the century.”

Some robbers were smash-and-grab vandals, George said, but others came prepared. Museum staff members found pieces of glass cutters used to open showcases.

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The thieves made off with original, priceless treasures such as the relief-decorated, limestone Warka Vase, made in about 2300 BC. “It’s a wonderful piece which dates back almost to the time when writing was invented,” George said.

George said a museum curator went to a U.S. Marine Corps headquarters and pleaded that a tank be moved to guard the museum entrance. “They told him they did not have orders for that,” George told the international curators. “Why did they not do it? It was a place that contained the heritage of mankind.”

U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said that when troops first began patrolling Baghdad, the situation was chaotic. They also have said they will assist in catching the looters.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. would contribute $2 million to help protect and restore museums and archeological sites in Iraq and reestablish a U.S. research center in Baghdad.

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