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Ancient war booty finding its way back to Iraq

  • Story Highlights
  • Syria has returned 701 antiquities smuggled out of Iraq
  • Collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars
  • Some pieces are 5,000 years old
  • Authorities are concerned that antiquities trafficking is funding insurgents
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From Arwa Damon and Mohammed Tawfeeq
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Stolen by smugglers and now returned to the cradle of civilization.

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Amira Idan explains to CNN's Arwa Damon how she identifies the treasures.

Iraqi authorities welcomed back 701 ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The pieces, some up to 5,000 years old, were plundered in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion and eventually seized from traffickers in Syria.

In 2003, the world watched looters ransack Iraq's National Museum, pilfering artifacts that recorded millennia of civilization's development. U.S. soldiers were blamed by the international community for not doing enough to protect these treasures.

The only pieces that survived were those too heavy to carry.

Journalists recently had a rare opportunity to view the antiquities that Syrian authorities confiscated from smugglers.Video Watch CNN's Arwa Damon tour Iraq's antiquities »

"At this stage, it is hard for us to put a precise value on the pieces," said Maysoon al-Bayati, spokeswoman for the Iraqi Museum. "But we know that the bowls that we received date back to 2900 B.C. and are the oldest pieces in our possession."

Holding up a fragment of some of mankind's earliest tools, Amira Idan, head of the General Committee for Antiquities and Heritage, explains how she identifies the pieces.

"These pieces belong -- you can see the IM number, that [means] Iraqi museum code."

The museum lost an estimated 15,000 artifacts; an unknown number were looted from Iraq's estimated 12,000 archeological sites. They have recovered only 5,000 museum pieces, Idan said.

"The majority of the pieces [are] a result [of] illegal digging that [occurs] on our sites, especially in the southern area," Idan said.

Over the past three years, Syrian authorities captured 701 pieces at border crossings between Syria and Iraq. In agreement with the Iraqi government, Syria stored them in its national museum because Iraq was deemed unsafe. The Iraqi minister of state for antiquities and tourism traveled to Syria to collect them and escort them home.

"My feelings when I recovered the artifacts in Syria and when I got to my homeland and I was carrying Iraq's artifacts, I can't describe my feelings, my happiness," he said, beaming.

Iraqi authorities fear that some trafficking in precious antiquities helps fund the insurgency.

Idan pointed out that the museum pieces are from an era when kings ruled Mesopotamia, which in Greek means "land between the two rivers."

Among the recovered items are cone-shaped pieces with delicate engravings.

"Tablets from the Urfi. That means the second millennium B.C.," she explained. "It is called a 'dedication writing.' This king bought this temple for that god." She said the tablets were usually placed in the foundations of temples.

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The museum has no plans to display the artifacts.

The museum is closed to visitors, most of its halls barren, the entrances locked, dust collects on the metal bars. And until Iraq becomes safer, its treasures, too, will remain off-limits. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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