By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Accusations are flying about oil smuggling in Iraq’s Ninevah province, and many accusers say government officials, armed factions and other powerful parties are involved.

Representatives of the province, including parliament member Ahmed al-Jubouri, have said recently that oil is being smuggled from the Ninevah wells.

That news coincided with Osama al-Nujaifi, head of the Iraqi Decision Coalition, telling the media Feb. 1, “Security forces sent out military vehicles to halt the smuggling operations, but armed parties controlling the wells stood in the way.”

Click here to read the full story.

By John Lee.

Five suspected members of an organized crime ring that was smuggling stolen cars into Iraq have reportedly been arrested in Turkey.

Police detained three members of the gang, one of them a Greek national, at a customs office in Istanbul after they cleared a luxury Jaguar through customs.

They later detained a Turkish national and the Iraqi leader of the group in a raid on a villa, also confiscating Mercedes SUV and $55,000 in cash.

According to Hurriyet Daily News, the two cars will be returned to their owners in Germany.

It adds that the leader of the is understood to be a prominent figure in Iraq’s automobile market, owning many auto galleries in the country.

(Source: Hurriyet Daily News)

(Picture: Smuggling, from dizain/Shutterstock)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, to the Republic of Iraq. The artifacts were smuggled into the United States in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer.

Many of the tablets can be shown to come from the ancient city of Irisagrig. The tablets, primarily from the Ur III and Old Babylonian period (2100-1600 BCE), are mostly legal and administrative documents, but also include an important collection of Early Dynastic incantations and a bilingual religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period. Two clay cones are inscribed with royal inscriptions from the Early Dynastic Lagash II periods (mid-third millennium BCE). The clay bullae include artifacts believed to be of Parthian or Sasanian date (late 2nd cent. BCE – early 7th cent. AD).

“These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home to Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces,” said Ambassador of Iraq to the United States Fareed Yasseen.

The artifacts returned were initially intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The shipping labels on these packages falsely described the cuneiform tablets as tile samples.

“CBP is honored to have played a role, together with ICE, in the return of these national treasures to their rightful owner, the Republic of Iraq.  In doing so, we ensure the protection of this priceless cultural heritage and secure a precious, tangible link to the past for future generations,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Ian Saunders.

After a review of the items and their documentation, ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agents, in conjunction with Assistant U.S. Attorneys at United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) conducted interviews of a number of Hobby Lobby employees between January and June of 2016 which led to the discovery of a deliberate intent by employees of the company to avoid using a customs broker for the artifacts related to this transaction.

“The Republic of Iraq, standing on the land that was once home to the storied city-states and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, has a celebrated heritage as a cradle of civilization,” stated U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue.  “We are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq’s history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people.”

Wednesday’s event was the first repatriation of cultural property to Iraq since March 2015, when ICE returned ancient antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects, including the Head of Assyrian King Sargon II, a limestone fragmentary head of Lamassu, the winged bull, from the Palace of Sargon II. ICE has returned more than 1200 items to Iraq in five repatriations since 2008.

ICE has returned over 8,000 artifacts to over 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th-18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia, and two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects returned to Iraq, ancient artifacts, including a mummy’s hand, to Egypt, and most recently royal seals valued at $1,500,000 to the Republic of Korea.

Learn more about ICE’s cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

(Source: ICE)

By John Lee.

Nearly 4,000 ancient artifacts illegally acquired by a US-based arts-and-crafts retailer are to be returned to Iraq on Wednesday.

In July of last year, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts smuggled into the US through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel.

According to the report from NPR, the items are expected to be displayed in Iraq’s National Museum.

(Source: NPR)

(Picture credit: US Dept of Justice)

An indictment was unsealed on Friday charging Ross Roggio, 49, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and Roggio Consulting Company, LLC, a firm with which Ross Roggio was associated, for alleged involvement in a conspiracy to illegally export firearm parts, firearm manufacturing tools, and “defense services,” including items used to manufacture M4 rifles, from the United States to Iraq, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers; U.S. Attorney David J. Freed of the Middle District of Pennsylvania; Special Agent in Charge Jonathan Carson of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement, New York Field Office; and said Special Agent in Charge Marlon V. Miller of Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia Office made the announcement.

The indictment charges Ross Roggio and Roggio Consulting Company, LLC with criminal conspiracy, illegal export of goods, wire fraud and money laundering. Pursuant to regulations of the U.S. Department of Commerce, a license is required to export certain goods and services from the United States to Iraq for reasons of regional stability and national security.  Similarly, defense services and defense articles may not be exported to Iraq without a license from the U.S. Department of State.

The indictment alleges that, beginning in January of 2013 until the date of the indictment, Ross Roggio conspired to export both items and services from the United States to Iraq, without the required U.S. Commerce Department and U.S. State Department licenses.  The conspirators allegedly purchased firearms parts and manufacturing tools from the United States, illegally exported the items to Iraq where the items were utilized and incorporated in the manufacture and assembly of complete firearms in a firearms manufacturing plant constructed and operated in part by Ross Roggio.  It is alleged that the items illegally exported included: M4 Bolt Gas Rings MIL; Firing Pin Retainers; Rifling Combo Buttons, and “defense services.”  The defense services allegedly provided by Ross Roggio and his firm include the furnishing of assistance to foreign persons in the manufacture of firearms.

In addition to the charges relating to export controls violations, the indictment also alleges that Ross Roggio and his firm committed wire fraud on at least three occasions by purchasing items from a United States company and providing said company with false information about the end-user of the items.  Finally, the indictment charges Ross Roggio and his firm with 27 counts of money laundering in the form of bank transfers from Iraq to two accounts within the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in furtherance of their unlawful export conspiracy.

The combined maximum penalty under federal law for these offenses is 705 years of imprisonment, a term of supervised release following imprisonment, and a fine.  The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes.  Any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the court based on the advisory Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.  The charges contained in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd K. Hinkley for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and Trial Attorneys Scott Claffee and Heather Alpino of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

(Source: US Dept of Justice)

By John Lee.

Qatar and Iraq have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to enhance security co-operation between the two countries.

According to Gulf Times the MoU aims to enhancing security co-operation, co-ordination, and the exchange of information and expertise between the two sides.

It covers almost all areas including terrorism and its finance, combating drug and human trafficking, and money laundering.

The MoU also covers security at airports and ports.

(Source: Gulf Times)

By Wassim Bassem for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Iraq’s Ministry of Health and Environment released 20 falcons back into the wild Nov. 17. The falcons had been smuggled earlier in the month to Kuwait, which returned them to Iraq. This incident is but one example of the systematic smuggling of rare birds and animals out of the country, and the authorities are working to better enforce existing laws and adding security measures.

“The lack of surveillance on the vast, open borders as well as the rampant corruption at the ports make such operations both possible and profitable for smugglers and merchants,” an officer in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Smugglers are encouraged by traders in the Gulf states who pay huge sums of money to purchase rare, ornamental or hunting birds. There’s an anecdote circulating that a rare breed of pigeon recently sent bird fanciers in Kuwait into a bidding war, driving the final price for the birds to $33,000.

“Many trade transactions are conducted illegally, away from any environmental or security controls,” Manal al-Muslimawi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Environment Committee, told Al-Monitor. “The Iraqi laws [are supposed to] protect the environment and its biological diversity, but they are not being enforced.”

The falcon incident, Muslimawi said, “is one out of hundreds of smuggling cases of Iraqi birds and rare animals, and the parliamentary committee is aware of that.” She added, “The environmental police in Iraq are not up to the challenge, given the lack of the needed personnel.”

Some markets in Baghdad even sell protected species in plain sight.

“Some well-known smugglers are buying rare animal and bird species from the market to selling them through cross-border networks,” bird trader Sheikh Ali told Al-Monitor.

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

On Aug. 7, Dhi Qar province, south of Iraq, formed a security force to protect its archaeological sites and monuments. The province is one of Iraq’s richest in archaeological sites, some of which are 7,000 years old.

The new force intends to enforce strict security measures to curb antiquities trafficking in areas with considerable archaeological sites.

However, local officials have argued that this force is incapable of protecting archaeological areas. They say it lacks adequate equipment, plans and training to thwart attacks on archaeological sites located in open areas with no perimeter fencing.

Prophet Abraham’s house, the Ziggurat of Ur, the royal cemetery and Dublal-makh temple, considered the oldest court in history, are located in Dhi Qar province.

According to Ajyal al-Moussawi, the chairman of the Committee of Tourism and Antiquities in Dhi Qar, “The province hosts 1,200 archaeological sites in danger due to neglect and trespassing.”

Moussawi told Al-Monitor, “The security force formed to protect Dhi Qar’s antiquities is incapable of fulfilling its mission. A force of 155 security guards with basic equipment and vehicles cannot protect 1,200 sites.”

Moussawi seemed skeptical about the role of the new security force, arguing that this is due to “the poor equipment and lack of plans to provide security for archaeological sites.”

Iraq is not only seeking to protect its antiquities from theft. The country is stepping up efforts to have new archaeological sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List after the Iraqi marshlands in Dhi Qar joined the list.

Hamid al-Ghazi, the head of the provincial council of Dhi Qar, said, “There’s a plan to protect antiquities, including the signing of agreements between Dhi Qar and other bordering provinces to curb … antiquities trafficking activities.”

Although the governor spoke of a plan and joint agreements with other provinces, those provinces have not yet taken any measures, while others are unaware of the agreements mentioned by Ghazi.

The chairman of the security committee within Dhi Qar’s provincial council, Jabbar al-Moussawi, told Al-Monitor, “The new security force established to protect the province’s archaeological sites won’t be able to do its job. The area and number of sites are considerably large for the force to handle.”

Upon visiting Dhi Qar’s most notable sites, the Ziggurat of Ur and prophet Abraham’s house, one would come across a single checkpoint manned with one or two policemen only checking the documents of the cars entering the archaeological city. Inside, there’s only one guard in his 50s armed with a Kalashnikov rifle.

Dayef Muhsen is following in the steps of his father and grandfather, who have protected the Ziggurat of Ur since its discovery in 1921. Muhsen told Al-Monitor, “Sometimes, some individuals attempt to sneak into the ziggurat at night to steal bricks or look for other things, but I’m able to chase them off by myself.”

In this regard, Iraqi archaeologist Amer Abdul-Razzaq al-Zubaidi told Al-Monitor, “A security force was formed back in 2004 to protect Dhi Qar’s archaeological sites by the international coalition forces. It was supported by Iraqi citizens and experts. However, there’s still a shortage in providing full and adequate security for Iraqi antiquities.”

Antiquities theft declined since the security force was formed in 2004, but it did not stop. Also there’s a community effort that plays a major role as far as collaborating with security agencies to safeguard antiquities,” he added.

An international plan is expected to be announced by UNESCO for the protection of Iraqi antiquities. It’s called the Response Plan for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage in Liberated Areas of Iraq.

Scattered across Iraq, archaeological sites require protection by a special force that has advanced training, satellites, expertise in detecting smuggled antiquities and a camera security system to monitor the vicinity of the sites.

However, the protection of Iraqi archaeological sites does not seem to be a priority for the Iraqi government. The establishment and equipment of a security force was a local decision made by Dhi Qar’s provincial council. A unified federal decision is yet to be made to include all of the provinces that host important archaeological sites.

The work of Dhi Qar’s new security force is limited to field patrols. It has failed to thwart past violations against monuments, raising concern among the members of the Dhi Qar provincial council.

In a city where arms proliferation is common outside official government forces, monuments won’t be safe from smuggling. The single guard of the Ziggurat of Ur and prophet Abraham’s house will not always be able to thwart smuggling attempts.

The formation of an understaffed security force with poor training and equipment is merely a formality aimed at providing protection for invaluable sites, and one day, this force might serve as an excuse for potential smuggling operations.

By John Lee.

A US-based arts-and-crafts retailer has agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts smuggled into the US through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel.

in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million. According to the US Department of Justice, the acquisition of the artifacts was “fraught with red flags“.

In addition to the fine, the company has agreed to the forfeiture of all of the Artifacts shipped to the US.

Hobby Lobby President, Steve Green, said in a statement:

We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled … We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal.”

The company added:

In 2009, Hobby Lobby began acquiring a variety of historical Bibles and other artifacts. Developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the Company’s mission and passion for the Bible.

“The goals were to preserve these items for future generations, to provide broad access to scholars and students alike to study them, and to share the collection with the world in public institutions and museums.

(Source: US DOJ, Hobby Lobby)

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

In the oil-rich city of Basra in southern Iraq, drug-trafficking gangs are gaining power. Through certain areas on the Iraqi-Iranian border, drugs come in from Iran to be consumed in Basra or smuggled to other Iraqi cities.

On Oct. 4, forces from the anti-drug office of the Basra police were able to arrest one drug dealer. However, local authorities are unable to touch major drug-trafficking gangs, because the local police lack the expertise and means to do so and thus only arrests middlemen and drug users.

The drug trade has been linked to several problems such as armed conflicts between gangs, murders, kidnappings and armed robberies. For instance, on Oct. 8, the Basra police reported that a young man was shot dead while another was injured as a result of an armed brawl between drug gangs. On Oct. 17, the Basra police also arrested two drug dealers with a significant quantity of marijuana and three guns.

Back on Aug. 25, Basra Police Chief Abdul-Karim al-Mayahi noted at a press conference, “Drug use has skyrocketed in 2016, and control is needed over the borders of Basra province to prevent drugs from entering.” What began as a provincial matter turned into a national priority as efforts to fight it gained great momentum at the security and defense committee meetings held at the parliament on Oct. 3.

The number of drug abusers arrested in 2016 increased by about 300% compared to 2015, when 261 people were arrested for drug violations. That number jumped to 780 just in the first eight months of 2016. The amount of narcotic substances seized by authorities jumped by almost 12 times during the last fiscal year. The problem poses a threat to the citizens of the province, especially the young men targeted by drug-trafficking gangs.

In 2016, the provincial authorities convicted 47 individuals of drug-trafficking and gave them various sentences, including life imprisonment.