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Iraq launches campaign to secure archaeological sites in Dhi Qar

By Faris al-Omran

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Iraqi police inspect the archaeological site of Jokha in the north of Dhi Qar province to follow up on security operations at the site on July 30, 2020. [Iraqi Ministry of Interior]

Over 200 police officers, accompanied by archaeologists, are conducting joint patrols in Dhi Qar, southern Iraq, to safeguard archaeological sites.

On September 13, Iraqi officials announced the launch of a campaign aimed at stopping the excavation and looting of artefacts in one of Iraq's richest provinces in archaeological sites.

The campaign is being held as Iraq received in Washington Thursday (September 23) a 3,500-year-old tablet recounting the epic of Gilgamesh, which was stolen three decades ago and illegally imported to the United States.

Ahmed al-Olayawi, spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities and Culture, said the campaign includes the deployment of night guards and military patrols from the Antiquities Protection Police Directorate and the Provincial Antiquities and Heritage Inspectorate to guard historic sites around the clock.

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Pottery and other ancient fragments are scattered in the open air at the Tell al-Ubayd archaeological site, to the west of the remains of the ancient city of Ur in Iraq's Dhi Qar province, on August 7. Iraq has launched a campaign to protect its archaeological sites from looting and destruction. [Asaad Niazi/AFP]

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Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen (L) shakes hands with Steve Francis, Executive Associate Director of US Homeland Security Investigations at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington DC, September 23, following the official handover of the Gilgamesh Tablet back to Iraq. [Saul Loeb/AFP]

So far this year, the Dhi Qar police have thwarted the theft of hundreds of artefacts and their smuggling abroad.

The seized items, which date back to ancient Iraqi civilisations, were handed over to the Nasiriyah Museum in Dhi Qar, said al-Olayawi.

Among the seized items were 350 artefacts, including clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions, pottery, and glass and precious metal objects.

In addition to the patrols and checkpoints, security forces have also installed protective fences around some sites, including Tell Abu Kambara and Tell Zajaa, al-Olayawi said.

Authorities are raising awareness among the tribes living near archaeological sites on the importance of protecting antiquities and reporting thieves and smugglers to the police, he said.

To date, authorities have distributed more than 10,000 educational booklets to the residents, he noted.

Rehabilitation in Ur

Dhi Qar contains about 1,200 archaeological sites, some of which are 7,000 years old.

One notable historic site in the province is the ancient city of Ur, the capital of the Sumerian state and cradle of the Prophet Abraham.

Ur was one of the principal stops on Pope Francis's historic visit to Iraq in March, and where he held a unified mass in which followers of all three Abrahamic religions participated.

Rehabilitation work is being carried out in the city with the help of international organisations and donors, said al-Olayawi.

"The Italian-based organisation Un Ponte Per has fenced parts of the city, built wooden walkways and erected street signs for the palaces and temples," he said.

An Iraqi benefactor has also started construction work on a small-scale city inside Ur, which will see the erection of a mosque, a church and a centre for interfaith dialogue, al-Olayawi said.

In recent weeks, the leaders of American, Italian and French missions visited Dhi Qar to inspect sites where excavation work will start in October.

The sites include Tell Zurghul in the Sumerian city of Nina (or Nigin), Tulul al-Hiba in the ancient Kingdom of Lagash, Tell Abu Atbeira and the ancient city of Eridu.

Two excavation missions are currently at work; the first is Russian at Tell al-Duhaila, and the other is French at Tulul al-Sankara, in the Sumerian city of Larsa, according to al-Olayawi.

Increasing the number of guards

A shortage of security guards and other logistical capabilities hamper efforts to secure archaeological sites, said Ali Jassem al-Hamidawi, an Iraqi MP who serves on the parliamentary committee for culture, tourism and antiquities.

"The launch of the campaign is undoubtedly a positive development, and it was one of our committee's demands, but the challenge is huge... We have hundreds of ancient sites in Dhi Qar, and there are more than 12,000 archaeological sites across the country altogether," he said.

"In order to adequately secure the sites and protect the excavation missions and the reconstruction projects, we must increase the number of guards and police personnel," he said.

The smuggling and sale of antiquities seriously undermine an important part of the country's history and identity, he said.

They also represent a huge source of funding for terrorist groups and organised crime groups, al-Hamidawi said.

Last month, authorities returned more than 17,000 looted artefacts recovered from the United States and several other countries to Iraq's Ministry of Culture -- many of which were destroyed or looted by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

The United States has also been helping Iraq rebuild important archaeological landmarks that ISIS elements destroyed, including an effort with the Smithsonian Institution to rehabilitate the historic city of Nimrud.

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