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Iraq: Baghdad Bids Farewell To Saddam Banknotes

Iraq today introduced its new currency. For the next three months, 240 banks throughout the country will be swapping old Saddam Hussein-era dinars for the new notes, and the government will begin issuing salaries in the new dinars as of November. RFE/RL reports that security is tight as Iraqis head to the bank to exchange their old dinars.

Baghdad, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Baghdad, rumors were swirling that fighters loyal to ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would use the first day of the currency swap to stage attacks on banks.

Throughout the country some 40,000 police officers, assisted by U.S. troops, are standing guard as Iraqis go to the bank to exchange their old Saddam-era bills for new dinars. All old bills have to be swapped by 15 January.

At the Rafadin Bank in the residential Al-Jamiya district in central Baghdad, three U.S. tanks are positioned outside concrete blocks and barbed wire surrounding the building.

Some 30 police and armed security officers are on hand. Everyone entering the building is thoroughly searched. A dozen people are lining up at the entrance.

The bank's manager, Hussein al-Mussawi, told RFE/RL that he fears the situation may become dangerous. With explosions and other attacks growing more frequent in the Iraqi capital, he said banks issuing the new banknotes are likely targets for terrorist attacks. "We are supposed to have tight security measures, especially in a residential area," he said. Al-Mussawi said some 300 Iraqis came to the bank to swap their old notes over the course of just two hours.

The Iraqis at the Rafadin Bank seem happy with the new banknotes, which are smaller and printed in Britain on better-quality paper than the old Hussein-era notes.

They also come in six denominations (50, 250, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 25,000) instead of the 250-dinar denomination that dominated previous transactions. And instead of Hussein's image, the new bills bear pictures representing Iraq's former glory and present hopes: the ancient Babylonian ruler Hammurabi, the Al-Mustansarya religious school -- considered one of the oldest schools in the Arab world -- and a modern industrial scene.

They are exchanged one to one with the Saddam dinar, which circulates in most of the country, and at a rate of 150 new dinars to the so-called "Swiss dinar," which was introduced before the Gulf War and which is still used in the northern Kurdish areas. They are also convertible into U.S. currency, at a rate of about 2,000 per $1.

Alla Abdul Karim, a businessman swapping his bills, says the new notes are difficult to forge -- something else that sets them apart from the bills introduced by Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991. He also says the introduction of the new currency "will improve the economic situation in the near future."

Wassen, a woman in her 30s, echoed the feelings expressed by many Iraqis that the new banknotes are a signal of better times ahead. "[The new currency] will unite Iraq from the north to the south," she said.

Karima, a lawyer, says the new banknotes are the first convincing sign since the U.S.-led war began that things are beginning to change. She says Iraqis need a dose of good news. "The whole nation needs the currency change, especially because the picture [of Hussein] will disappear, because the people psychologically are tired [of it] and they need the change of the currency," she said.

A street vendor, Muhammad, accepts the new banknotes with no hesitation. Holding the new dinars in his hand for the first time, he smiles and says he likes the switch: "Yes, we like it. It's good, and it's much better than the one we had during the old regime. It's good paper and it's much better than before. The old [banknotes] were really bad."

Thafer Maki is a cashier in a coffeehouse in the Mansur district of Baghdad. Holding a new dinar, he invites the waiters to take a look at the money. Everyone agrees the banknotes are well made and nicer than the "old Saddams."

Maki says the new notes have a political value as well as an economic one. "The most important thing is that we don't see [Saddam's] face on the notes."

The new banknotes will make a practical change in the life of many Iraqis, who had grown accustomed to carrying large bundles of 250-dinar notes to make even the smallest purchases.

The U.S. administration in Iraq and the country's own provisional government hope the new notes will send a clear and unmistakable message that the era of Saddam Hussein is over. It seems the message is coming through.

The Saddam-free notes will be the 14th time that the Iraqi currency has been reissued since the first Iraqi banknotes went into circulation in April 1932 bearing the portrait of King Faisal.