BAGHDAD (AFP) — The Iraq Museum reopened almost six years after its ancient treasures were looted in the chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion.
With its polished marble floors, glass display cases filled with gold coins, pottery and jewellery, and freshly painted pale blue walls, the Baghdad museum is again home to a wealth of artefacts, some dating back thousands of years.
Tourism and Antiquities Minister Qahtan Abbas, before an audience of invited guests including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said about 6,000 items had so far been returned from inside Iraq, from its neighbours and around the world.
A total of 15,000 statues and other valuable artefacts were looted in the April 2003 ransacking of the institution long known as the National Museum that has been repeatedly forced by conflict to close its doors.
"We want to make our museum a place which will be at the forefront of international museums. There's a long road ahead of us. There are a lot of discoveries still being made at archaeological sites," said Maliki.
He called on archaeologists to help make Iraq "a mecca for research" into the history of mankind.
The inauguration itself was a red-carpet VIP media event, coming the morning after the Oscars in Hollywood, but with a Baghdad flavour: tight security and snipers posted on rooftops.
After the fall of Saddam's statue regime on April 9, 2003, well-equipped gangs of looters swarmed on the museum and countless historical sites around Iraq, which prides itself as the cradle of civilisation.
The Iraq Museum, which has stood at its present location since 1966, last year completed the renovation of its Islamic and Assyrian halls, thanks to a one-million-euro (1.1 million dollar) donation and technical help from Italy.
It is also displaying artefacts from the Sumerian and Babylonian eras, although only eight of its 26 halls have been opened in the initial phase. "Work in progress" signs stand outside the closed galleries.
The achaeological wealth of Iraq, historically known as Mesapotomia, shows some of the first evidence of complex urban life appearing within its borders around 3,000 BC.
Its refurbished halls are now home to a host of spectacular ancient treasures including a huge stone slab featuring the Assyrian god of water, Aya, large statues and frescoes.
Former museum director Donny George, who fled to New York, has accused the US occupation forces of "the crime of the century" for having stood by and watched the ransacking of the museum that went on for days.
Looters smashed numerous antiquities and beheaded statues such as that of Hatra, while more professional thieves selected valuable items for smuggling.
Apart from looting, rampant among public buildings after Saddam's fall, US tanks blasted a hole in the wall of the entrance to the museum, which generations of Iraqis know from school visits.
The museum is to be opened in a first phase to organised groups of schools, universities and tourists.
Almost 2,500 of the items returned have come from neighbouring Jordan, another 700 from Syria and more than 1,000 from the United States, the antiquities minister said.
Other objects were returned home from as far part as Peru and Sweden.
Abbas rejected criticism, including from Iraq's own culture ministry that the museum was being reopened too hastily, before adequate security was in place and proper cataloguing of the returned items.
His government is keen to show life is slowly returning to normal in war-battered Iraq despite an ongoing insurgency.
The opening brought traffic chaos to Baghdad streets as police sealed off several main roads around the museum as part of a security operation for the inauguration, which was attended by ministers and foreign diplomats.
Bombers and gunmen killed at least six people in attacks targeting security forces in the Iraqi capital and a town to the south on Monday, the interior ministry said.
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