Fears that Iraq's heritage will face widespread looting at the end of the Gulf war have been heightened after a group of wealthy art dealers secured a high-level meeting with the US administration.
It has emerged that a coalition of antiquities collectors and arts lawyers, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), met with US defence and state department officials prior to the start of military action to offer its assistance in preserving the country's invaluable archaeological collections.
The group is known to consist of a number of influential dealers who favour a relaxation of Iraq's tight restrictions on the ownership and export of antiquities. Its treasurer, William Pearlstein, has described Iraq's laws as 'retentionist' and has said he would support a post-war government that would make it easier to have antiquities dispersed to the US.
Before the Gulf war, a main strand of the ACCP's campaigning has been to persuade its government to revise the Cultural Property Implementation Act in order to minimise efforts by foreign nations to block the import into the US of objects, particularly antiques.
News of the group's meeting with the government has alarmed scientists and archaeologists who fear the ACCP is working to a hidden agenda that will see the US authorities ease restrictions on the movement of Iraqi artefacts after a coalition victory in Iraq.
Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, leading Cambridge archaeologist and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, said: 'Iraqi antiquities legislation protects Iraq. The last thing one needs is some group of dealer-connected Americans interfering. Any change to those laws would be absolutely monstrous. '