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Ashcroft: Organized crime suspected in Iraqi thefts

Earlier, attorney general was in Paris for G-8 talks

Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble, left, greets U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday.
Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble, left, greets U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday.

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LYON, France (CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that investigators believe that "organized criminal groups" were involved in the looting and theft of artifacts from Iraq during the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"From the evidence that has emerged, there is a strong case to be made that the looting and theft of the artifacts was perpetrated by organized criminal groups," Ashcroft said.

The attorney general praised the international police agency Interpol and experts on Mesopotamian culture and art for agreeing to join forces in the hunt for 200,000 missing pieces of art.

"Although the criminals who committed the thefts may have transported the objects beyond Iraq's borders, they should know that they have not escaped the reach of justice," Ashcroft told an Interpol conference.

The two-day meeting at Interpol's headquarters -- which follows Ashcroft's Monday conversations with his Group of Eight counterparts -- is focusing on compiling a computer database of stolen items so citizens who come across suspicious objects will know whether they were looted.

Ashcroft said the FBI will continue to rely on the help of Interpol's communications network to help track and return the ancient artifacts, most of which were stolen from Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad.

"In a region of unmatched historical heritage ... there is a circumstance where the restoration of these hallmarks of antiquity can draw tourists, artists, scientists, business individuals, historians," Ashcroft said.

"It is our goal to return parts of the Iraqi people's past. In doing so, we hope to return pieces of the Iraqi people's future."

G-8 talks in Paris

French Justice Minister Dominique Perben, left, shakes hands with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft prior to their meeting at the Justice Ministry in Paris on Monday.
French Justice Minister Dominique Perben, left, shakes hands with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft prior to their meeting at the Justice Ministry in Paris on Monday.

On Monday, Ashcroft quietly participated in a meeting of the Group of Eight Justice Ministers in Paris, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit France since stark disagreements between Washington and Paris developed last winter during U.N. deliberations about Iraq.

Ashcroft was conspicuously absent from a news conference featuring justice and interior ministry officials from the seven other nations. In addition to the French hosts, officials were present from Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Russia.

When reporters asked the French ministers where Ashcroft was, the hosts had no ready answer, and suggested the question be asked to Ashcroft himself.

In Washington, Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said that because a joint statement was issued on behalf of all eight ministers, Justice officials concluded Ashcroft's participation in the news conference wasn't necessary.

Comstock denied suggestions that Ashcroft's absence was due to strained relations between U.S. President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, or to lingering bitterness between top U.S. and French diplomats and defense officials.

Ashcroft did appear briefly for a group photo with other officials, and also posed briefly for a photo shaking hands with his French counterpart, Justice Minister Dominique Perben, before a closed-door bilateral meeting.

Justice Department and FBI officials have maintained in recent months that law enforcement relationships with their French and German counterparts have remained excellent despite the obvious difficulties on the diplomatic front. Justice officials pointed to continued cooperation with Perben and German Justice Minister Otto Schily in the war on terrorism.

The joint statement issued at the Paris meeting said the terrorist threat remains serious, and will require continued international cooperation.

CNN Producer Terry Frieden in Washington contributed to this report.


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