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LYON, France (AP) -- Organized crime was involved in the looting of Iraq's national museum and the United States will fully back international efforts to retrieve the stolen artifacts, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told an Interpol meeting Tuesday.
The comments came at a conference of art experts and law enforcement officials aimed at creating a database listing items looted in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"From the evidence that has emerged, there is a strong case to be made that the looting and theft of the artifacts were perpetrated by organized criminal groups -- criminals who knew precisely what they were looking for," Ashcroft said.
"Although the criminals who committed the theft may have transported the objects beyond Iraq's borders, they should know that they have not escaped the reach of justice," he added, praising Interpol's efforts so far.
Ashcroft did not say whether he suspected international organized crime -- such as the Mafia -- was involved in the looting, but other experts at the conference said they did not have any evidence of such involvement so far.
"We are waiting for more information," said Jean-Pierre Jouanny, an Interpol specialist in theft of cultural objects.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, has said the opposite -- that the Baghdad looting did not appear to be carried out by organized thieves.
Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said one of the group's top tasks was to collect and distribute descriptions of missing objects so they can be tracked down. He said such information was still sorely lacking.
"Right now we are operating only on rumors and anecdotal evidence," Noble said, adding that after the 1991 Gulf War, Interpol was able to log only one looted item into its database.
The two-day conference in southeastern France began Monday with presentations by officials from the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Interpol, the State Department and university experts.
Iraq's museums held millennia-old artworks from the Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures. Ancient Mesopotamia -- modern-day Iraq -- was the cradle of urban civilization. Some experts fear thousands of pieces of art, including priceless antiquities, may be missing.
But figuring out what's missing depends in large part on the condition of written inventories from the looted museum.
While the catalog at Baghdad's National Museum has been kept for the most part intact, the status of inventories at museums in other parts of Iraq is unknown. And experts say they have no idea of the looting toll at archaeological sites.
Outside lists, descriptions and photographs of Iraqi holdings also help. The British Museum, for example, has provided records of some Iraqi items suspected of being looted.
A British Museum official who recently returned from Iraq estimated on Monday that 30 to 40 antiquities were missing from the National Museum in Baghdad -- fewer than initially feared.
But John Edward Curtis also stressed that no one knows the status of 100,000 to 200,000 antiquities kept in storage, as well as an untold number of smaller, portable items that museum officials removed for safekeeping months before the war.
Interpol already has a database of 21,000 other stolen artworks that includes photographs and descriptions. Its 181 member countries have quick computer access to that information.
Interpol also publishes a CD-ROM for the private sector, prints posters of "most-wanted" stolen treasures and lists recent thefts on its Internet site.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)