PARIS (Reuters) - A French-funded archaeology team is working on the first excavations in Iraq's northern Kurdish areas after seven years of conflict, the latest effort to save the country's treasures from ruin.
Iraq, which the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia or 'land between the rivers' because of the Tigris and Euphrates that flow through it, is regarded by archaeologists as a cradle of civilization.
But historic sites have been neglected and damaged by decades of war, sanctions and looting and Iraqi officials say the country needs millions of dollars to reverse the damage.
"Cultural heritage is an essential element of development," France's foreign ministry spokesman said in a briefing on Wednesday after excavations began Tuesday.
The French-led team, also responsible for training local archaeologists, will initially carry out digs for a month in Arbil. Iraq's third-largest city, whose existence can be traced back to the 23rd century BC, is located east of the Tigris.
The excavations will take place on the site of an existing citadel and the hill on which it is built.
According to the United Nations cultural organization, Unesco, the citadel is more than 8,000 years old and successive layers of settlements have formed the mound that comprises an area of about 10 hectares (10,000 meters sq).
The mission has one year of funding from France's National Commission for Excavations.
Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region has been relatively sheltered from the violence that has swept the rest of the oil-producing nation since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and is aiming to encourage tourists to visit its ancient sites.
Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Lin Noueihed