AMMAN, June 16 (Reuters) - Hidden in cars, coat pockets and even bags of onions, ancient treasures are flowing out of Iraq and many are surfacing in Jordan, where officials have seized a record 1,347 pieces in the past two years.
The seized artefacts, kept in a secret storehouse, included an Assyrian ivory carving ransacked from the Baghdad Museum by looters as Saddam Hussein's rule crumbled, U.N. and Jordanian officials said this week.
"These pieces are priceless. They are very important. They tell us a lot about the history, the habits and the fashion of the time," said Philippe Delanghe, programme specialist for culture in the Iraq office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), based in Amman.
"The Jordanian government has been one of the most active in the region in terms of pursuing illicit trafficking of Iraqi artefacts," he said.
Jordan, which shares a long border with Iraq, is believed to be a major transit point for smuggling antiquities from the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to wealthy collectors in Europe and the United States.
A close U.S. ally, Jordan has tightened security at its borders, and custom officials and police have received training from UNESCO and Italy's carabinieri to help identify stolen treasures.
Smaller numbers have been seized in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria but Jordan has recovered by far the most. Items have also surfaced in Italy and the United States, officials said.
Most of the antiquities seized by Jordanian customs and police were plundered from Iraq's vast archaeological sites and from storage houses in Mosul and Nassiriya, said Fawwaz Khraysheh, the head of Jordan's Department of Antiquities.
They include cuneiform tablets -- clay palettes bearing symbols regarded as the origins of writing -- bronze jewellery, ceramic figurines and Islamic coins from the Omeyad period in the 7th century AD.
Khraysheh said the pieces, as well as paintings and pictures of a smiling Saddam stolen by a foreign journalist from one of the former dictator's palaces, would be returned once Iraqi officials requested them.
"AN ALARMING PROBLEM"
Although the plundering of Iraq's treasures began more than a decade ago, it has gathered pace in the chaos that followed the 2003 U.S.-led war, fuelled by poor security and an international black market.
"The looting of ancient sites in Iraq is an alarming problem," Chiara Bardeschi, who heads UNESCO's International Committee for the Safeguard of Iraq's Cultural Heritage, told Reuters by telephone from her office in Paris.
The most valuable piece confiscated by the Jordanians is the Assyrian ivory carving, dating from about 2,000 BC. It is believed to have been part of the bed of an Assyrian king and the carving represents hunting and court scenes.
It was broken into pieces by the smugglers and seized at the Karama border crossing months after looters broke into Baghdad's national museum in April 2003 and stole about 15,000 pieces.
About half of the pieces looted from the Baghdad museum have been recovered.
Officials say the seizures may be only a small proportion of what is being smuggled out of Iraq, considered the cradle of civilisation.
Experts are unaware of the size of Iraq's archaeological heritage -- there are 10,000 registered archaeological sites and there is no inventory of the artefacts they contain.
The looters have become more organised and ingenious.
"We have heard stories of artefacts hidden in bags of beans and onions and loaded onto trucks," Delanghe said.
With anarchy prevailing in large parts of Iraq, Delanghe said it would be difficult to stop the traffic until security improved.
"We know artefacts are disappearing at all sites. We can't even go to these sites. They are too dangerous."