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US art dealer agrees to pay $3 million and hand over stolen Iraqi artefacts

The US arts and crafts dealer Hobby Lobby was sued by the US government over the smuggling of looted Iraqi artefacts into the United States.

In the matter of The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae, the Oklohoma based art dealers whose owners are named as the Green family, were forced to hand back 5,000 original Iraqi artefacts some of them which date back to ancient Babylonia.

Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million to attain the loot in 2010. The artefacts were smuggled into the US via companies in the United Arab Emirates and Israel. However, US officials raised red flags when on the customs paperwork, the ancient treasures were listed as mere “ceramic tiles”.

This triggered an investigation which ultimately led to the lawsuit.

The owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that they planed not to sell the loot but instead to display it in their “Museum of The Bible”.  This was taken into consideration by the court, thoguh the importation of the stolen goods was still considered to be unlawful.

As part of the settlement reached between Hobby Lobby’s owners and the US government, a fine of $3 million must be paid and all of the goods must be returned to Iraq.

This case sheds light on the hidden side of the war and chaos which has been wrought upon Iraq ever since 2003. Where under Ba’athist rule, Iraq’s museums drew international visitors to view ancient art and artefacts in a safe setting, today many of these treasures have either been looted or destroyed.

Indeed, entire architectural wonders of the ancient world have been destroyed in Iraq. The ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh near Mosul in northern Iraq were entirely destroyed by ISIS.

In the last weeks, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul has also been destroyed by retreating ISIS terrorists.

Of course, the monuments of human dignity are the first and last victims of wars like those which have befallen Iraq ever since the illegal US-UK invasion in 2003, but the sad fact of any unnecessary war is that ancient wonders get looted, pillaged and destroyed. The theft of cultural heritage is in many ways far more tragic than the theft of utilitarian resources like oil.

Iraq’s integrity as a state remains deeply threatened by the ongoing series of conflicts that have gripped the once united nation ever since 2003. Although Mosul is now largely free of ISIS occupation, the killing and torture of civilians by Iraqi forces as well as the total destruction of the city’s civilian population centres and infrastructure by the US Airforce may mean that Mosul like Iraq might never recover.

As I previously wrote in The Duran,

“While it is obvious that Iraqis should want to celebrate the symbolic victory, ISIS is far from defeated in Iraq. What’s more is that Iraq was the tumultuous cradle of ISIS and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

In this sense, Syria can actually defeat ISIS whose ideology is completely foreign to the modern Syrian experience. Iraq by contrast will have a much more difficult time.

America and Britain’s illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was a disaster from which Iraq has not recovered. After the imperialist invaders illegally deposed the legitimate government of Iraq, the occupiers then conspired to totally disenfranchise anyone seen as tied to the government, even when in actual fact such people were often not connected to the government.

This quickly spilled into a divide and conquer technique wherein the imperialists sought to turn Shi’a against Sunni in a country that had always had some lingering tensions, although the Ba’ath Party did wonders in minimising these tensions, as Ba’athism is an explicitly anti-sectarian ideology both in theory and practice.

The inane so-called ‘de-Ba’athification’ process that the occupiers executed was little more than a social genocide of Iraqi Sunnis. At the same time, Shi’a Iraqis were equally enraged at the illegal conquering of their nation, although for different reasons. At the same time, Christian Iraqis were subject to a total genocide. Those who survived fled, often to Ba’athist Syria where they were welcomed without hesitation by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Even in the years of Saddam Hussein’s often fraught Presidency, the government and civil service of Iraq saw Sunnis, Shia’s and Christians of all major denominations in positions of distinction and importance.

Sunni Iraqis were consequently driven to any ideology, any movement and ultimately any group that could give them some sort of agency in the new post-Sunni Iraq. Many such people were for the first time in their previously secular existence, driven to the ideology of al-Qaeda. As foreign al-Qaeda fighters flooded into a country that had under the Ba’ath party been among the most anti-al-Qaeda places on earth, many local Sunnis joined their ranks for the sad reason that their ranks were among the only that would have them.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born. Eventually al-Qaeda in Iraq would become the Islamic State of Iraq. Shortly thereafter they broadened their horizons and sought to expand becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant. This in turn formally became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and finally today it calls itself The Islamic State, though it is sill generally known in English speaking countries by the acronym ISIS.

The fact that Sunni Iraqis are still being tortured, still being associated with terrorists even when they are not associated with terrorism, still being treated with suspicion, means that the divide and conquer attitude which the imperialist powers instilled on a once united Iraqi nation, are still omnipresent in today’s Iraq.

So long as the conditions which allowed ISIS to foment are present in Iraq, so long will the threat of ISIS, irrespective of what it might call itself in the future, continue to haunt Iraq”.

While Iraq’s future remains uncertain and its immediate tasks of rebuilding and reconciliation remain fraught with peril, there is still no justification for looting what treasures remain in an ancient land whose soil has frequently been awash with the blood of the innocent.

The Hobby Lobby case sets an important precedent for preserving the cultural integrity of nations even as they are rife with war and sorrows.

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