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Iraq: U.S. Soldiers Find Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars Hidden In Baghdad Homes

U.S. soldiers this week recovered a staggering amount of hidden money -- nearly $800 million -- while searching a residential neighborhood in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Officials are now trying to verify the source and authenticity of the money, but experts say without a clear paper trail, that may prove very difficult. Meanwhile, the hunt for cash goes on.

Prague, 24 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Where did all the money come from?

That's the question U.S. officials are trying to answer after soldiers this week discovered nearly $800 million hidden in two residential areas in Baghdad. One stash of more than $650 million was found hidden behind a false wall. A second stash of more than $100 million was found hidden in an animal kennel.

The soldiers had been searching the homes of former Ba'ath Party and Republican Guard officials.

By any measure it's a staggering amount of money -- especially in Iraq, where the average person earns just $2,000 a year. Expressed in those terms, an average Iraqi would have to work almost 400,000 years to earn what the soldiers uncovered this week.

The initial find was confirmed by U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks: "During an action to stop a looting, soldiers from the [U.S. Army's] 3rd Infantry Division discovered a significant amount of money behind a false wall. The amount is believed to be in excess of $600 million, in $100-bills."

Brooks says experts are now trying to verify the authenticity of the money and where it came from.

Jimmy Gurule, a law professor at Notre Dame University, is an expert on tracing money and has worked as an investigator for the U.S. Treasury Department. He describes the find as "huge."

"It's absolutely huge. And of course what is particularly suspicious, more than suspicious, is the way it was being stored. I mean people do not store more than half a [billion] in a hidden compartment in a wall unless they are trying to conceal something. To conceal the source of the money, to conceal how the money was generated -- and of course the concern is that the money was generated illegally."

The origin of the money is a mystery. Investigators are reportedly following a lead that the cash was part of $1 billion withdrawal from the Jordanian central bank. "The Los Angeles Times" reports the money was found stored in aluminum boxes with a stamp bearing the name "Bank of Jordan."

But if the recovered money is part of a larger withdrawal, that means $200 million of it is still missing.

Experts say without a clear paper trail, tracing the cash will be difficult. More than $600 billion are currently in circulation around the world, with most of the dollars (55 percent) outside the United States. Tracing individual notes from serial numbers is apparently almost impossible.

"First, you need to look for any type of bank records, bank documentation, computer records that would reflect how the money was transferred, whether it was moved through any bank accounts, Iraqi bank accounts or foreign bank accounts," Gurule said. "So I think that is the starting point."

Even if investigators find the source of the money, it may never be possible to discover how the money was raised -- and how it was to have been spent.

Experts say some of the cash could have been siphoned off Iraq's UN-mandated oil-for-food program, which allowed for the sale of Iraqi oil to raise funds for humanitarian needs. Some of it could also have come from illegal purchases of Iraqi oil by Jordan or other buyers. It's conceivable that some or all of the money may have been raised legally.

Gurule says, however, that the fact the money was concealed -- and not held in banks -- raises serious suspicions. He offers two possible reasons: "[Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] could very well have feared that the invasion would have resulted in his defeat and that the coalition forces would then take control of Iraqi banks. So, the explanation could simply be as simple as [Saddam] wanted to maintain this money for his personal wealth and he wanted to ensure that it wouldn't be confiscated by coalition authorities."

Or, Gurule says, Hussein did not want the money to be traceable because he wanted it for illegal purchases -- possibly even to buy weapons of mass destruction.

In the meantime, the search for more cash goes on.

Ultimately, U.S. officials say whatever money is recovered will end up in the Iraqi treasury to fund rebuilding efforts. But some may also end up in the pockets of U.S. troops. Already, reports say six soldiers have been arrested for trying conceal around $900,000. Most of that has been recovered.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.