Byline: Alexandra Zavis Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD - He works as a blacksmith in one of Baghdad's swarming Shiite slums. But at least once a month, Abu Saif tucks a pistol into his belt, hops into a minibus taxi and speeds south.
His goal: to unearth ancient treasures from thousands of archaeological sites across southern Iraq.
Images of Baghdad's ransacked National Museum, custodian of a collection dating back to the beginning of civilization, provoked an international outcry in the early days of the war in 2003.
The ancient statues, intricately carved stone panels, delicate earthenware and glittering gold are now protected by heavily armed guards. But U.S. and Iraqi experts say a tragedy on an even greater scale continues to unfold at more than 12,000 largely unguarded sites where illegal diggers are chipping away at Iraq's heritage.
"It may well be that more stuff has come out of the sites than was ever in the Iraqi museum," said Elizabeth Stone, an archaeology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. …