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Long Island Jews Unite To Keep Artifacts Seized From Saddam Hussein's Police

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Thousands of Jewish artifacts found in Iraq a decade ago have been restored and are now on public display.

But not for long.

They're slated to be returned to Iraq -- and that's angered many in the Jewish community, CBS 2's Carolyn Gusoff reported Monday.

Thousands of miles -- and years -- From ancient Babylonia, Alice Aboody is fighting to preserve history.

"This is stolen material. How can you return it?" she said.

Aboody is the descendant of generations of Iraqi Jews, once a community of 150,000. But after 1950, Jews were exiled and their heirlooms were pillaged.

"This belongs to me; it was taken by force. They didn't willingly give it," said Aboody, who lives in Port Washington.

Long Island's Babylonian Jewish community is now fighting for the return of a treasure: torahs, prayer books and personal documents dating back to the 1500s and found by the United States in the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's police. After 10 years and $3 million spent restoring the artifacts, which are now on tour, the U.S. has promised to return the archive to Iraq. Congressman Steve Israel said he wants the State Department to reconsider.

"They need to guarantee that these treasures will be accessible and won't be returned to where we found them, in the the basement of the Iraqi secret police almost destroyed," Rep. Israel said.

"What would they do with these artifacts? But it means so much to us. To take these back, it's like taking my heart back," Aboody added.

Harold Rhode, a former Pentagon official in Iraq when the artifacts were found, spoke to CBS 2's Gusoff via Skype.

"This is not the heritage of Iraq. It is the heritage of Iraqi Jews. It is their personal property," Dr. Rhode said.

The State Department told CBS 2, "While we remain committed to the terms of the 2003 agreement, we are also aware of the sensitivities surrounding the return of the material and are in discussions with our Iraqi counterparts."

Congressman Israel said the U.S. must be the custodian of the collection to ensure that scholars and Jews worldwide get to see it, study it and enjoy it. In Iraq, there are only four Jews alive today, Gusoff reported.

Pieces of the archive are on display at the Jewish Heritage Museum in lower Manhattan through mid-May.

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