U.S. Marine hunts for Iraq's looted treasures

Julian Borger

London: On April 15, 2003, in the Iraqi city of Basra, an enraged British journalist stormed up to a U.S. marine colonel and his men and denounced them in strong words. The colonel had been looking for weapons left behind by the ousted Iraqi regime, but this reporter believed fiercely that he should be more concerned that ``the finest museum in the world has just been looted''.

By a peculiar turn of fate, she had stumbled on the one person in the whole of modern Mesopotamia who both cared deeply about the cultural calamity at Baghdad's Iraq museum and possessed the expertise, determination and clout to do something about it. His name was Col. Matthew Bogdanos, whose toughness and tenacity had earned him the nickname ``pit bull'' even before he went off to fight the ``war on terror''.

Five days after the encounter, he had overcome the objections of his superior officers and was at the gates of the Baghdad Museum, heading a mixed bag of volunteer soldiers and investigators, ready to hunt down Iraq's lost legacy.

What followed over the next two years was an epic feat of wartime sleuthing which took Col. Bogdanos along a trail from pitch-black underground chambers and submerged bank vaults in Baghdad to the sleek antiquity dealerships of Madison Avenue, in pursuit of lost treasures. Along the way, more than 5,000 artworks, including unique pieces from the first fluttering of civilisation, were recovered.

Col. Bogdanos left active duty in the marines last month, but he is still on the hunt for the thousands of objects still unaccounted for. These days, Col. Bogdanos is feted as a hero in Washington. Ten days ago, he was in the Oval Office where President George Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal. More surprising than the number of treasures stolen was the number brought back. One of the first steps decided upon, was when Col. Bogdanos and the museum authorities declared an amnesty with no questions asked and a cup of tea for anything returned. The colonel and his men fanned out into the Baghdad bazaars and spread the word. Antiquities soon started turning up at the museum gates. One car delivered 94 artefacts.

So the focus of the hunt moves now from Baghdad to New York, where Col. Bogdanos will set up his new investigative unit. Meanwhile, he is playing it cool, fielding offers from Hollywood for his story. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004