The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has taken over large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, is selling ancient Iraqi artifacts in the black market to finance its military operations in the region, Iraqi and Western officials said.
Speaking at a conference at the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO in Paris, France's ambassador to UNESCO Philippe Lalliot warned that Iraq's cultural heritage is in "great danger."
The Paris conference hosted a number of international experts and diplomats to discuss ways to save Iraq's treasures.
"When tens of thousands of people are dying, should we be worried about cultural cleansing? Yes, because heritage unites and culture provides dialogue that fanatical groups want to destroy," Lalliot said.
Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the Baghdad Museum, said organized groups were working in coordination with ISIS.
"It's an international artefacts' mafia," he told reporters. "They identify the items and say what they can sell," he said. Since some of these items were more than 2,000 years old it was difficult to know exactly their value.
Citing local officials still in ISIS-controlled areas, Rasheed said the biggest example of looting so far had taken place at the 9th century B.C. grand palace at Kalhu of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II.
"Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities," he said. "Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal," he said, referring to a tablet of a winged bull.
Another Iraqi official, who declined to give his name, said artefacts were also being dug up and neighboring states such as Jordan and Turkey needed to do more to stop such items crossing their borders, according to Reuters.
"Things are getting across our borders and into auction houses abroad," he said. "Unfortunately many of the proceeds of these artefacts will be used to finance terrorism."
A Western diplomat said it was too early to assess exactly how much from Iraq had crossed the borders.
"We've seen hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Syrian pieces pop up after their sites were looted, so it's not unreasonable to expect the same for Iraq," he said.
Béatrice André-Salvini, Director of Near Eastern Antiquities, stressed the need to save Iraq's treasure of ISIS' hands before more is torched off or sold off by "artifacts mafia" that turned Iraq into a "black market" for stolen antiquities.
The UNESCO event, which brought together diplomats, Iraqi officials and experts on Iraq's heritage, comes ahead of next month's general assembly of the world cultural body, at which France will submit a resolution to raise awareness among member states and create a mission to help Iraq evaluate the damage.
Iraq's heritage already suffered a major blow in the lawlessness and looting that followed the toppling of President Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces in 2003, when looters torched buildings and ran off with treasures thousands of years old.
However, Islamic State militants, whose strict Salafi interpretation of Islam deems the veneration of tombs and non-Islamic vestiges to be idolatrous, have destroyed tombs, mosques and churches and burned precious manuscripts and archives.
In attacks reminiscent of assaults on shrines in Afghanistan and Mali, militants in Mosul destroyed statues of Othman al-Mousuli, a 19th Century Iraqi musician and composer, and of Abu Tammam, an Abbasid-era Arab poet.