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UNESCO Chief Promises Help in Restoring Iraq's Looted Sites
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UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay visits the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, March. 6, 2023. Iraqi National Museum hosts many artifacts from the periods of Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Islam. ( Hadi Mizban/AP)
BAGHDAD (AP) -- The head of the United Nations cultural agency promised Monday to continue helping to repair the damage done to Iraq's historic sites by decades of war.

In a visit to Baghdad ahead of the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay met with officials including Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. She also visited historic neighborhoods in Baghdad and the country's national museum, which was looted following the U.S. invasion.

Tens of thousands of artifacts were stolen from sites around the country during the years of conflict that followed.

Speaking to reporters at the national museum, Azoulay said UNESCO "is very committed to assisting Iraq in the recuperation of the cultural goods and artifacts that have been looted over the last decades."

The museum now holds the crown jewel of Iraq's repatriated artifacts: a small clay tablet dating back 3,500 years and bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh that was looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago and returned from the U.S. two years ago. The tablet is among 17,000 looted artifacts returned to Iraq from the U.S.

Iraq is home to six UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites, among them the ancient city of Babylon, the site of several ancient empires under rulers like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

As security has stabilized in Iraq in recent years, the country has seen a resurgence of archaeological excavations, and international dollars have flowed into restoring damaged heritage sites like the al-Nouri mosque in Mosul.

"We all know what Iraq has been through over the last decades," Azoulay told reporters. "And we also know what the civilizations of this world owe to Iraq."

Azoulay is set to visit Mosul, as well as the northern city of Erbil, whose citadel is a UNESCO heritage site, during her tour of the country.

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