U.S. puts end to #039;treasure hunt#039;

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 25, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq-The word went out: hundreds of millions of dollars in cash were left behind in bricked-up buildings inside one of fallen president Saddam Hussein's palace compounds. Before long, U.S. officers said, a half-dozen U.S. soldiers had stashed away $12.3 million in two separate capers.

But this was not the "Three Kings,'' the movie about a fictional 1991 Persian Gulf War heist to which the diversions were immediately compared. Not much planning was involved, according to U.S. officers, and the accused soldiers all came clean when officers shamed them by invoking their fallen comrades.

The soldiers are under investigation and face punishments ranging from letters of reprimand to general courts martial, officials said. None has yet been charged, all are cooperating with investigators and nearly all the money that went missing for several hours last weekend has been recovered, they said.

Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division brigade to which the accused soldiers belong, said in an interview Thursday that a relatively small amount - in the "thousands of dollars'' - remains unaccounted for. The fate of the soldiers will be decided under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he added.

Including a cache of $112 million that was discovered Wednesday in a row of dog kennels, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division so far have found about $780 million in makeshift vaults in the gated complex on the western bank of the Tigris River that was once occupied by senior officials of Saddam's government, armed forces and political party.

"They actually thought they were going to survive this (U.S. attack) and go back into their vaults,'' said Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, 40, of Fairfax, Va., commander of the tank battalion that occupies the Republican Palace.

Left in the kennels and in buildings that appeared to be relatively modest guest houses were nearly 200 aluminum boxes, each riveted shut and sealed with green plastic tags marked "Bank of Jordan.'' The boxes each contained $4 million in $100 bills, along with a note signed by five Iraqis attesting to the amount and the date the box was sealed, March 16, said Lt. Col. Ken Knox, a civil affairs officer from Riverdale, Md.

On the doors of the guest houses and the locks of the kennels were pieces of tape bearing the signature of a Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim and the date of March 20, the same day that U.S. troops crossed the Iraqi border from Kuwait in their drive to remove Saddam from power. DeCamp, commander of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, a unit of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, said Ibrahim doesn't appear on his list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials in the ousted government and that no other identifying details are known about him.

"I bet he was probably the last guy out of here,'' deCamp said.

The chain of events that led to the alleged theft attempts began Friday when two enlisted men, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Van Ess and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Buff, discovered the original money cache and immediately alerted senior officers.

Soldiers broke through walls of cinderblock and cement that had apparently been hastily erected over the doors and windows of guest houses on one of the lots in the sprawling palace complex. In each room they entered, they found 20 aluminum boxes stuffed with $100,000 stacks of $100 bills.

Sometime later, five soldiers of the 10th Engineer Battalion, an element of the 2nd Brigade that is attached to deCamp's Task Force 4-64, broke into a similarly bricked-up house up the road and discovered 50 of the aluminum boxes. But they reported only 47 of them, officials said.

According to deCamp and other officers, the soldiers pried open one of the boxes and found it filled with cash. They then carried two of the 80-pound boxes across the road to a moat in front of a much more elaborate two-story villa and dumped them, unopened, into the water.

The trouble was, deCamp said, the boxes were each two feet square, and the water was only two feet deep. "So they weren't very hard to find,'' he noted.

The soldiers grabbed bundles of cash from the opened box and attempted to hide six of them - totaling $600,000-in the trunk of a nearby tree, deCamp said. An additional $200,000 was stashed in an adjacent wooded area. The box containing the rest of the cash - or most of it - was hidden close to where the five soldiers were staying.

A soldier who knew about the opened box informed investigators about it, the soldiers involved were questioned, and the cash at all three locations was recovered Friday and Saturday. The informant has been cleared of any involvement in the alleged theft attempt.

In a separate incident, an Army truck driver, a member of the support platoon charged with transporting the money to 3rd Infantry Division headquarters at Baghdad's international airport Friday, allegedly stuffed $300,000 of the stash into a cooler. The driver "fessed up immediately'' when the missing amount was noticed, and that case was solved "within five minutes,'' deCamp said.

The task force commander said officers reminded the soldiers that eight fellow brigade members had been killed and dozens wounded to get the unit to the palace complex they now occupied. To take advantage of that position to "loot Iraq'' would dishonor the sacrifices of their fallen comrades, deCamp said the soldiers were told.

Since the weekend incidents, soldiers have been instructed not to break into any more buildings or pry open any suspected cash boxes, but to secure the area and notify commanders.

"The little treasure hunts got out of hand … and we put a lid on them,'' deCamp said.

By the time civil affairs soldiers discovered the kennels Wednesday, new procedures were in place, and senior officers were summoned to avoid any question about the find. After one of the seven kennels was opened, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the 3rd Infantry Division commander, and Col. John Sterling, the division chief of staff, watched Task Force 4-64 soldiers break apart the cinderblock walls covering the entrances to the other six.

What will now become of the cash has yet to be determined. At present, "this money belongs to the U.S. government,'' and stealing any of it would be punishable as "theft of U.S. government property,'' deCamp said.