The fate of antiquities looted from Iraq was in the spotlight yesterday at a UNESCO-sponsored conference in Athens on the return of cultural property. When Baghdad fell to the US-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein, the world watched in horror as looters ransacked the museum that housed some of the nation's most prized treasures. Today, trafficking of stolen Iraqi antiquities is helping to finance al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militias, according to the US investigator who led the probe into the looting of the National Museum. Undeniable links United States Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney called up to duty shortly after 9/11, said that while kidnappings and extortion remain insurgents' main source of funds, the link between terrorism and antiquities smuggling has become «undeniable.» «The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan,» Bogdanos told The Associated Press in an interview on the sidelines of the conference. «Well, they don't have opium in Iraq. What they have is an almost limitless supply of antiquities. And so they're using antiquities.» The murky world of antiquities trafficking extends across the globe and is immensely lucrative - private collectors can pay tens of millions of dollars for the most valuable artifacts. It's almost impossible to put an authoritative monetary value on Iraqi antiquities. But as an indication, the colonel said one piece looted from the National Museum - an 8th-century-BC Assyrian ivory carving of a lioness attacking a Nubian boy, overlaid with gold and inlaid with lapis lazuli - could sell for $100 million. Bogdanos, 51, an amateur boxer with a master's degree in classics who won the Bronze Star fighting in Afghanistan, said it was not until late 2004 «that we saw the use of antiquities in funding initially the Sunnis and al-Qaida in Iraq, and now the Shiite militias.» Although security has improved dramatically in Iraq since mid-2007, the country is still violence-ridden, and it is all but impossible for Iraq's 1,500 archaeological guards to protect the country's more than 12,000 archaeological sites. «Unauthorized excavations are proliferating throughout the world, especially in conflict zones,» Francoise Riviere, the assistant director-general of UNESCO's cultural branch, said at the conference. She said UNESCO was deeply concerned about the «decimation» of Iraq's cultural heritage. «The damage inflicted on the National Museum in Baghdad, the increasingly precarious state and the systematic pillage of sites are alarming facts which are a great challenge to the international community,» Riviere said. Bahaa Mayah, an adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told the conference that looters sometimes use heavy machinery to dig up artifacts - destroying the site while they loot. Lack of cooperation He decried a lack of cooperation among some European countries, which he refused to name, in returning trafficked goods seized from smugglers. «We are facing now, especially in Europe, tremendous difficulties in recovering our objects that are seized,» he said. Bogdanos said smuggling networks did not appear with or after the war. «It's a pre-existing infrastructure; looting's been going on forever.» But it was in the days after the fall of Baghdad in March 2003 that the National Museum was looted. The United States came under intense criticism for not protecting the museum, a treasure trove of antiquities. Bogdanos said that according to the latest inventories, a total of about 15,000 artifacts were stolen. Of those, about 4,000 have been returned to the museum, and a total of about 6,000 have been recovered. Much of the museum's looting was carried out by insiders and senior government officials of the time, said Bogdanos, who co-authored a book about the investigation, «Thieves of Baghdad,» with William Patrick. Royalties from the book are donated to the museum. Bogdanos said not enough is being done by organizations such as UNESCO to protect Iraq's heritage. «There's no other way to say it. There's a vacuum at the top,» he said.