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HADITHA LAKE, Iraq (Reuters) - Drought and dams have vastly shrunk a lake in Iraq's western Anbar province, revealing ancient dwellings and burial sites that archaeologists fear will now be targeted by thieves.
"We found recently opened graves with destroyed grave items around. We found some bones scattered nearby. Some of this is due to the water, but this was also due to recent activity," said Yassin Jbara, an archaeologist supervising Haditha sites.
Recently broken ancient jars lie scattered on the lake's banks, where an eerie forest of skeletal trees have re-emerged from water that flooded the area in 1986 when a dam was built.
Dams further up the Euphrates river and drought have vastly dried the lake over the past two years. Now the dead trees stand stark against the bleak desert landscape, and decaying birds sway in the fishing nets tangled in the tree tops.
"There are people that dig up these pots and break them open looking for gold," said Jbara, plucking pottery from the mud.
Looting of the country's ancient sites has been a common problem in the decades of war and sanctions under Saddam Hussein and the lawlessness that engulfed Iraq since he fell in 2003, when looters carted off 15,000 artifacts just from the museum.
Iraq lies in the heart of a region many call the cradle of civilization, where Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer are among cultures and empires that have risen and fallen over millennia.
On the banks of Haditha Lake, rock staircases and the domed ceilings of mud-filled rooms are now visible under a carpet of shells left behind by the lake water.
Many of the Haditha graves date from the Assyrian period, but relics and sites around it represent a jumble of civilizations and eras spanning the last 5,000 years.
Burials in large urns were typically Assyrian, and grave goods included gold jewelry, precious stones, kohl eyeliner bottles, cups and other vessels. Recent finds include a nose ring and an anklet of jangling circular metal pieces.
A walk on the lake's banks revealed a giant pottery shard which a guide said indicated a grave underneath.
Anbar officials said they feared the arrival of the organized theft that has blighted other ancient Iraqi sites.
"We're worried that organized theft could become a problem," said Anbar's chief archaeologist Ratid Ali Faraj, adding that some Haditha sites had already been tampered with.
There are only nine police assigned to protecting 435 archaeological sites in Anbar, a vast desert area, he added.
"We need protection, and a lot of resources," he said.
An international effort rescued some of Haditha's known and important salvageable relics before the area was flooded over 20 years ago, but Faraj said the water had revealed some new graves, and that much more may yet lie undiscovered.
The lake may once more claim the known sites and end any chance of unearthing more of Iraqi's rich history if heavy rains come, but Jbara said the sites should protected in the meantime.
"Like a family member that has drowned, you still respect the body if it appears from the water."
Editing by Paul Casciato