US to return 17,000 looted ancient artefacts to Iraq

The United States is returning more than 17,000 ancient artefacts that were looted and smuggled out of Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, including a 3,500-year-old clay tablet that bears part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Iraq has said.

Tens of thousands of antiquities disappeared from Iraq after the invasion that toppled its leader, Saddam Hussein. Many more were smuggled out or destroyed by Islamic State (Isis), which held a third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017 before it was defeated by Iraqi and international forces.

US authorities working to recover the artefacts, recently reached an agreement with Baghdad to return items seized from dealers and museums in the United States, the Iraqi culture and foreign ministries said.

“The US government seized some of the artefacts and sent them to the [Iraqi] embassy. The Gilgamesh tablet, the important one, will be returned to Iraq in the next month after legal procedures are finalised,” the culture minister, Hassan Nadhim, said.

US authorities seized the Gilgamesh tablet in 2019 after it was smuggled, auctioned and sold to an art dealer in Oklahoma and displayed at a museum in Washington DC, the department of justice said, adding that a court ordered its forfeiture last month.

It said that a US antiquities dealer bought the tablet from a London-based dealer in 2003. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a 3,500-year-old Sumerian tale considered to be one of the world’s first pieces of literature.

Nadhim said other artefacts being returned included other tablets inscribed in cuneiform script.

Iraq’s ancient heritage has been decimated by conflict, destruction and looting, especially since 2003. Thousands of artefacts are still missing.

After 2014, Isis raided and wrecked historical sites on what Unesco called an “industrial” scale, using loot to fund its operations through a smuggling network that extended through the Middle East and beyond.

With the help of international agencies, Iraqi authorities have been trying to track down, return and preserve the country’s archaeological relics.

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