Iraq's Insurgency, Funded by Treasure

The financing behind the violence that continues to disrupt Iraq may have an unlikely source: ancient treasure.

"The people that are murdering men, women and children in the streets are getting some of their funds from the current trade in antiquities," said Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos. "In Afghanistan the Taliban are using opium to support their activities. The cash crop in Iraq is not opium, it's antiquities."

Bogdanos, who's been labeled the "Indiana Jones" of Baghdad, was conducting counter-terror actions in southern Iraq in April 2003 when he heard from news reports that 170,000 artifacts had been stolen from the Iraq Museum while U.S. troops stood by idly.

Bogdanos, who has a master's degree in classics from Columbia University, decided to do something about it.

"I heard the same reports you did and I was outraged," he said. "I'm with Voltaire on this one: Every man is guilty of the good he doesn't do."

The initial reports turned out to be inaccurate -- in fact, far fewer items were stolen. But still, Bogdanos had a mission. From among his team of about 100, he assembled a group of law enforcement investigators and New York City police officers and set off after Iraq's stolen treasures.

Raiders of the Lost Art

When he arrived at the Iraq Museum he began to investigate what had happened, and found some disturbing evidence -- a hole in the side of the Children's Museum from what appeared to be the shell of an American tank.

He learned Iraq's Special Republican Guard had been using the museum as a firing position, and in fact, the U.S. forces had fired only in defense.

"This is war; this is combat," Bogdanos said. "The tank commander, ironically who was a former high school history teacher, had the moral courage to tell his troops, his tank battalion, to pull back because he was concerned that any additional fighting in the vicinity of the museum would actually destroy the museum."

But the good intentions backfired -- in the wake of the army's withdrawal, the looters moved in.

"It is fair to say that U.S. planners, and I'll put myself in that category, underestimated the level of hate and vengeance that the Iraqi people would take out on the museum," he said. "What we failed to appreciate was that the museum itself had been closed for 20 of the previous 24 years. It was associated with the regime. Many Iraqis that I met called it 'Saddam's gift shop.' Their words, not mine."

The nickname is fitting -- since the first Gulf War in 1991, the museum opened for only one day: Saddam's birthday.

The Crusade Continues

Bogdanos and his team spread out into the community and recovered 6,000 of the more than 14,000 pieces stolen by looters. It was a tedious process and required an unorthodox approach.

"We went to every mosque we could find, enlisting the aid of sheikhs and imams, went to every tea house and coffee house, drinking more tea than I thought humanly possible in any six lifetimes, developing trust," Bogdanos said.

He said he didn't have permission to do what he did next: promise amnesty. Anyone who returned stolen goods was off the hook. Bogdanos said his initial goal in Baghdad was to get the items back, not to prosecute those who took them.

In a few days, however, he starts a new job at the Manhattan District Attorney's office, heading a special task force on the traffic in antiquities stolen not just from Iraq but from cultural sites around the world. This time, he will prosecute.

"I will treat the people who engage in the illegal trade in antiquities exactly like I treat all other criminals," he said. "They are breaking the law. They are committing a crime and it is my goal to stop them from committing those crimes, whether it's today, tomorrow, a year from now. That is my goal."