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A fertile crescent for looting

A National Geographic survey finds guards at some key sites, but others, especially in the south, are being robbed.

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They come by the hundreds. Gangs of thieves with shovels and penknives are now raiding Iraqi archaeological sites, gouging millenniums-old artifacts out of the dirt in what scientists consider a potentially catastrophic loss of the early record of human civilization. That's the picture that emerges in a new survey released Wednesday - the first since the recent war - about the state of sites that may hold undiscovered treasures.

Progress has been made securing some key sites, but more are now being scavenged, according to National Geographic, which did the survey.

The report comes after a sign of hope last week in the land that was once home to the civilizations of the fertile crescent: the discovery in a bank vault of key treasures originally reported stolen from Baghdad's National Museum. On Saturday, a report by the US Customs Service and State Department numbered the museum's losses, originally reported as 170,000 pieces, at about 3,000.

But even as they piece the museum's collection back together, archaeologists worry that widespread looting of unexcavated sites could result in devastating losses of other antiquities.

"I think much more is leaving the country now from these sites than from museums," says Henry Wright of the University of Michigan, who led the National Geographic survey of 41 sites. "I don't think it's 170,000 [pieces] yet, but if this continues for a few months it probably will be."

This is no small or dusty matter: Modern day Iraq sits squarely on ancient Mesopotamia, the civilization where 7,000 years ago city life, written language, and law were born. The hour, the circle, the Bible, and the zodiac originated there. As archaeologists like to say, the history of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians, and Assyrians is everyone's history.

TRAVELING with US marines, the 5-member National Geographic group made surprise inspections of 23 of Iraq's best-known archaeological sites. They found that almost none had been damaged by US bombs. More than half boasted one or more guards, often armed, though most said they hadn't been paid since the US invasion.

A few sites - Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatra in the north, and Ur and Babylon in the south - were under US military protection. Apart from these, though, "I don't think we saw any other site outside Baghdad that didn't have at least one looting hole," says team member Elizabeth Stone, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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