Iraq artefacts dating back 4,000 years were due to be smuggled

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IRAQI police have seized a small cache of ancient statues and other artefacts that officials said were set to have been smuggled abroad and sold.

Iraq is home to relics of the world's most ancient urban civilisations. The 39 relics were discovered stashed in a hole near a shrine outside the southern city of Nasiriyah. They included statues and shards with writing on them dating back to the ancient Sumerian civilisation, which is more than 4,000 years old.

Police said a tip-off led officers to believe the pieces were going to be smuggled into Iran.

Pictures of the pieces released by police showed images of animals, men and women carved into flat tablets, a necklace and a carving of a head and torso.

A government official who works with the archaeology department confirmed the seizure.

Iraqi law says all artefacts more than 200 years old have to be handed over to the government for inspection. The country is dotted with ancient archaeological sites that have little or no protection.

The country's priceless heritage has been plundered and sold to collectors abroad in the chaotic seven years since the United States-led invasion.

The US military was heavily criticised for not protecting the National Museum's treasure of relics and art following Baghdad's fall in 2003. Thieves ransacked the collection, stealing or destroying priceless artefacts that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilisation in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.

Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures. Up to 7,000 pieces were still believed to be missing when the museum reopened last year.

A US military official said the sale of stolen antiquities was believed to have helped finance Iraqi extremist groups.

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