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Thousands of Iraqi artifacts found

Many items found in museum vaults

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

Artifacts are placed on a table at the Iraqi National Museum after being recovered.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Customs agents, working with military and museum experts at the National Museum in Baghdad, have recovered nearly 40,000 manuscripts and about 700 artifacts, government officials announced in Washington Wednesday, leaving perhaps only a few dozen key pieces missing.

The museum was looted after the city fell to U.S.-led forces last month, but there has been disagreement since then about how many and what kinds of items were taken. U.S. officials believe some valuable pieces were taken by professional thieves.

Agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs (ICE) said that so far they have photos and documentation to confirm only 38 items from the museum are still missing. Although they suspect additional pieces may have been stolen, they declined to speculate on the scope of the additional uncatalogued items that may have been looted.

Officials from ICE, newly created as part of the Department of Homeland Security, said many of the missing items had been stored for safekeeping in hidden storage vaults within the museum before the war. Other items had been returned after public promises of amnesty and rewards.

Agents said they have found evidence that certain select high-value pieces had been stolen.

Officials from a U.S. government delegation, which just returned to Washington from an Interpol conference on the missing antiquities in Lyon, France, this week, said the number of missing artifacts was never mentioned in their meetings.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who led the group, vowed to help the global effort to recover missing items, but did not mention any numbers or refer to the scope of the Baghdad museum thefts.

The Justice Department officials said their best information continues to be that whatever the scope, the thefts were organized, not the result of random crime.

"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 Tuesday at the Lyons conference. (Full story)

Expanding on those comments, ICE agents Wednesday said there was no apparent sign of forced entry to the storage sites, and the doors were locked when investigators arrived.

Agents said they broke through a cinder-block barrier in the basement to find a room with hundreds of cardboard and plastic boxes containing thousands of the less valuable items that had been reported missing.

A similar box filled with such items was recovered last week near Kut in southern Iraq, said officials who believe the intruders are attempting to move the remaining missing artifacts out of Baghdad.

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