Image: Iraqi artifacts
Karim Kadim  /  AP
Artifacts are displayed at Iraq's national museum, in Baghdad. Iraq's tourism and antiquities minister says about 600 missing artifacts, smuggled out of Iraq and then returned, have been found in storage at the prime minister's office.
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updated 9/20/2010 3:11:05 PM ET 2010-09-20T19:11:05

More than 600 ancient artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq, recovered and lost again have been found misplaced among kitchen supplies in storage at the prime minister's office, the antiquities minister said Monday.

The 638 items include pieces of jewelry, bronze figurines and cylindrical seals from the world's most ancient civilizations that were looted from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. After their recovery, the U.S. military delivered them last year to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office, where they were misplaced and forgotten about.

The artifacts, packed in sealed boxes, were misplaced because of poor coordination between the Iraqi government ministries in charge of recovering and handling archaeological treasures, said Tourism and Antiquities Minister Qahtan al-Jabouri.

He blamed "inappropriate handover procedures" but did not go into detail.

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Iraqi and world culture officials have for years struggled to retrieve looted treasures but with little success.

Thieves carted off thousands of artifacts from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and in earlier years of war and upheaval. Many items ended up abroad. Collections that were stolen or destroyed at the National Museum chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.

Only a fraction of the items have been recovered.

Authorities only realized the items misplaced at the prime minister's office were missing when they began putting together a public display of recently recovered artifacts in Baghdad on Sept. 7.

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The prime minister's office investigated, located the items and handed them over to the Antiquities Ministry on Sunday, al-Jabouri said.

"Sealed boxes were located in a storage among kitchen supplies," al-Jabouri said at a news conference. "They were opened and artifacts were found inside."

So far, 5,000 items stolen since 2003 have been recovered. More than 15,000 pieces from the National Museum are still missing.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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