Three men have been arrested in Iraq on charges of trafficking eight priceless ancient artefacts, as the war-torn nation clamps down on a burgeoning black market. The men were foiled after trying to sell one item for $160,000 to an undercover intelligence officer of the Iraq Army 12th Division, just outside the northern city of Kirkuk. A fourth trafficker is yet to have been caught by the police. Among the treasures was the bust of a Sumerian king, local army chiefs told Associated Press. All of the objects date from the region’s Sumerian era, between 4,000 and 2,000 BC. Major General Abdul Amir al-Zaidi told reporters the sting was based on information from local residents, and stressed the Iraqi authorities’ commitment to retrieving vital artefacts in the face of civil unrest: “The duty of Iraqi army is not only to chase the terrorists but also to protect state treasures,” he said.
The operation is a breath of fresh air in a country which, following the upheaval and demise of tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who based his image on the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II), fell prey to looters and traffickers as the invading US Army failed to secure some of its most precious ancient sites and
artefacts. Some objects have subsequently been found as far afield as Switzerland and Japan, and US soldiers have even been ordered to receive cultural heritage training. The Netherlands returned 69 stolen treasures to Iraq only two months ago, but many more items are unaccounted for. The ancient artefact black market has taken several blows of late, with high-profile sting operations making headlines in the US and Bulgaria. The latter has come under heavy fire from so-called ‘treasure hunters‘ recently, with the government taking a hard-line on those caught in the act of plundering its Roman, Thracian and Byzantine past.
Kirkuk itself stands at the faultline between a myriad ancient and contemporary peoples. Built on the ruins of the Assyrian city of Arrapha, which stood from around 2,000 BC, it was the stage for dozens of bloody battles between the Assyrians and their Babylonian and Median rivals. More recently the city was the scene for further bloodshed, when Hussein ordered its infamous cleansing of Kurdish inhabitants, before becoming a vital step in the US-led coalition’s struggle to control the countrCitizens and officials will be hoping this small victory can prove a turning point in the city’s fortunes.