p0823 BC-Iraq-Insurgents-Antiq 1stLd-Writethru 03-18 0795

Military investigator: Iraqi extremists find funding in antiquity smuggling networks

Eds: CORRECTS that comments were made during interview, not during conference. AP Photos ATH108-110, NYWD107-108. Moving on general news and entertainment services.

AP Photo NYWD107, NYWD108, ATH108, ATH109, ATH110


Associated Press Writer


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The smuggling of stolen antiquities from Iraq’s rich cultural heritage is helping finance Iraqi extremist groups, says the U.S. investigator who led the initial probe into the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum.

Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos claimed both Sunni insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militias are receiving funding from the trafficking.

Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney, noted that kidnappings and extortion remain the insurgents’ main source of funds. But he said the link between extremist groups and antiquities smuggling in Iraq was "undeniable."

"The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan," Bogdanos told The Associated Press in an interview during a two-day UNESCO-organized conference that ended Tuesday on returning antiquities to their country of origin.

"Well, they don’t have opium in Iraq," he said. "What they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they’re using antiquities."

He did not provide details on whether he believes factions in Iraq were actively engaged in smuggling or simply forcing payments from traffickers, whose networks often follow overland routes to Jordan and Syria and then onto cities such as Beirut, Dubai or Geneva.

But such suspicions of insurgent links to antiquity smuggling has drawn mixed opinions in the past from experts.

In 2005, Donny George, then director of Iraq’s National Museum, said the sale of looted artifacts was helping insurgent groups buy "weapons and ammunition to use against Iraqi police and American forces."


In raids in 2006, Marines arrested a group of suspected insurgents in underground bunkers where they found weapons, ammunition and uniforms alongside vases, cylinder seals and statuettes that had been stolen from the National Museum.

Antonia Kimbell, an art trade manager at The Art Loss Register — which maintains a database on stolen, missing and looted art — said she had yet to see concrete evidence connecting the trade in illegal antiquities and insurgent financing.

"We haven’t come across a direct link," she said.

Laurent Levi-Strauss, chief of cultural objects and museums section at UNESCO, said it was immensely difficult to determine where looted antiquities were going.

"The market is totally secret, so we don’t know where they are," he said. "We don’t know who is buying them or where the money is going."

Bogdanos said the complex routes for the trade in plundered antiquities appear to have generated an underground tariff system. "According to my sources, (Lebanese) Hezbollah is now taxing antiquities," he told the AP.

Bogdanos said the antiquities trade was not an immediate source of revenue for insurgents after the U.S.-led invasion.

"They were not that sophisticated," he said, adding that it was not until late 2004 "that we saw the use of antiquities in funding initially the Sunnis and al-Qaida in Iraq, and now the Shiite militias."


Although security has improved dramatically in Iraq in recent months, it is all but impossible for Iraq’s 1,500 archaeological guards to protect the country’s more than 12,000 archaeological sites, experts said.

"Unauthorized excavations are proliferating throughout the world, especially in conflict zones," Francoise Riviere, the assistant director-general of UNESCO’s cultural branch, said at the conference.

Bahaa Mayah, an adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities who attended the conference in Athens, says looters sometimes use heavy machinery to dig up artifacts — and destroy the site while they loot.


Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris, Verena Dobnik in New York and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.

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