The items - which include parchment scrolls, documents, historic and modern books mostly related to the Iraqi Jewry, some dating from the 1500s - are to be taken to the United States for restoration and temporary display, the department said on Thursday.

"These are the first cultural materials from Iraq to be brought over to the United States for restoration in the post-conflict period," said Nina Bishop, a spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The items were discovered in early May, about a month after US troops occupied Baghdad on April 7, in the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat (secret police) headquarters in the capital, she told AFP.

Waterlogged and mouldy

The waterlogged material fills 27 large metal trunks and has been frozen to stop the growth of mould, said John Constance, an official with the US National Archives that will oversee the restoration.

"I determine that their temporary exhibition or display by the National Archives and Records Administration ... is in the national interest"

Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs

Because the freezing process occurred before the arrival of conservators in June a complete catalogue of the items has been impossible and will only take place once they are in the United States and the mould is removed, he said.

But an initial analysis of the material has shown the items date from between the 16th and 20th centuries and include Torah scrolls, Jewish law and children's books, all printed in Hebrew, Constance said.

The rarer items include a volume of the Third Rabbinic Bible published in Venice in 1568 and what appears to an original 1696 edition of the "Birkat Avraham," a commentary on the Torah, also published in Venice, he said.

Other items include Arabic-language documents produced for Iraqi Jews and government reports about the Jewish community, he said.

Neither Bishop nor Constance could offer a definitive explanation as to why the items had been stored in the Mukhabarat.

But they said the material was probably seized by Iraqi authorities or left behind in homes vacated by Iraqi Jews who fled the country.

National interest

US law requires a licence for the import of protected antiquities and Washington has been particularly sensitive about items from Iraq given the widespread perception that it failed to adequately protect Iraqi artefacts from looters after the fall of Saddam's government.

Patricia Harrison, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs who signed off on the licence, found the material to be "of cultural significance," according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

"I also determine that their temporary exhibition or display by the National Archives and Records Administration, or another educational or cultural institution, is in the national interest," she said in the notice.