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US returns thousands of smuggled ancient artefacts to Iraq

Iraqi artefacts had been smuggled into United States and shipped to Hobby Lobby, a nationwide arts and crafts retailer
Ancient artefacts on display in Washington, DC on 2 May before they are returned to Iraq (AFP)

US officials on Wednesday returned to Iraq 3,800 ancient artefacts that had been smuggled into the United States and shipped to a nationwide arts and crafts retailer.

The items include cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date back to 2100-1600 BCE, officials said.

US Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artefacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some laid out on a table.

"We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable," said ICE acting director Thomas Homan.

These pieces "are very important to us and they should be returned home," said Yasseen.

The ceremony was the first US repatriation of cultural property to Iraq since 2015.

Thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae were smuggled into the United States via the United Arab Emirates and Israel

Packages of cuneiform tablets were initially intercepted by customs agents and falsely labelled as tile samples for retailer Hobby Lobby.

The company last year agreed to forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artefacts and pay $3m to settle a civil suit brought by the US government, attributing its purchase of the illegally imported items to naivete.

The Department of Justice says thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae were smuggled into the US via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in packages shipped to the Oklahoma-based company.

Hobby Lobby said it had been acquiring artefacts "consistent with the company's mission and passion for the Bible" with the goal of preserving them for future generations and sharing them with public institutions and museums.

Steve Green, the billionaire evangelical Christian who founded Hobby Lobby, is chairman of the Museum of the Bible, which opened last year in the US capital.

US Attorney Richard Donoghue said on Wednesday that US officials "are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq's history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people".

Since 2008, ICE has returned more than 1,200 items to Iraq, whose cultural property was heavily plundered in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Hobby Lobby calls itself the largest privately owned arts-and-crafts retailer in the world with about 32,000 employees operating in 47 states.

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