BABYLON, Iraq -- In broad daylight, thieves broke into the Nebuchadnezzar Museum by the ancient ruins of Babylon and made off with two of the 14 main exhibits.
They took five large foundation cylinders bearing cuneiform writings from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, the famous Babylonian king who rebuilt this city in the sixth century B.C., and 37 other small flat cuneiform tablets from different Mesopotamian periods.
"I believe foreigners are encouraging thieves to steal the relics of Iraq," charged Wahbi Abdul Razak, director of Babylon's ruins, blaming United Nations sanctions against President Saddam Hussein's regime for a surge in antiquities thefts across the country.
"The Iraqi dinar is so devalued, they must have offered them thousands of dollars," speculated Abdul Razak, 53, who has worked in Babylon for 30 years.
He echoed the Iraqi government view that foreign buyers and U.S.-sponsored sanctions imposed after Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait account for the crime wave in artifacts.
Baghdad has yet to comply with the conditions for having the sanctions lifted and rejects a U.N. plan to allow food and medicine to be imported. Recently, though, it agreed to an oil-for-food deal with the United Nations.
McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, warned that millions of dollars are involved in this illegal trade marketing stolen pieces in London, New York and Chicago.
By stripping relics from hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of sites in Iraq, he said thieves rob the world of crucial knowledge that could be learned from such objects if archaeologists found them they were left.
"We were hearing stories three and four years ago of people digging at famous archaeological sites in the Iraqi desert, 200 and 300 people working at a time on illegal digging," said Gibson, who has done field work in Iraq since 1964 but was forced to stop in 1990 shortly before the Persian Gulf war.
All kinds of crimes are on the rise across Iraq these days, from murder and armed robbery of Baghdad residents and motorists on rural highways to an outbreak of car thefts in which the autos are taken at gunpoint and spirited into the northern autonomous Kurdish region to be resold.
"There's a breakdown of authority in the north, and they're taking advantage of it," said Hamid Youssef Hamadi, minister of culture and information.
"This is not a wave. It's a rise in crime. I don't want to minimize it. To Baghdadis used to a low rate of crime compared to other Middle East countries, they find it alarming," he said.
Iraqis casually left their doors unlocked a decade ago, but desperate economic conditions brought on by years of sanctions have sent estimated murder and robbery rates up by at least 10 percent, according to one government estimate.
Pub Date: 12/03/96