Officers End an Unofficial Treasure Hunt
U.S. Military Recovers Millions Allegedly Stolen by Troops During Search of Hussein Palace
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2003; Page A15
BAGHDAD, April 24 -- The word went out last Friday: 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 for themselves.
But the windfall didn't last. Military officials said the accused soldiers all came clean and returned the money after officers shamed them by invoking their fallen comrades.
The soldiers are now under investigation and face punishments ranging from letters of reprimand to general courts martial, officials said. None has 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 G. Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division brigade to which the accused soldiers belong, said in an interview today that a relatively small amount -- in the "thousands of dollars" -- remained unaccounted for. The soldiers have not yet been disciplined. Their fate, Perkins added, will be decided under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
So far, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division have found about $780 million in makeshift vaults in the gated complex that was once occupied by senior officials of Hussein's government, armed forces and political party. On Wednesday they discovered a cache of $112 million in a row of dog kennels.
"They actually thought they were going to survive this [U.S. attack] and go back into their vaults," said Lt. Col. Philip D. DeCamp, 40, of Fairfax, commander of the tank battalion that occupies the Republican Palace.
Left in the dog kennels and in what appeared to be relatively modest guesthouses were nearly 200 aluminum boxes, each riveted shut and sealed with green plastic tags marked "Bank of Jordan." Each box contained $4 million in $100 bills and a note signed by five Iraqis attesting to the amount inside. The notes were also marked with the date March 16, apparently when the boxes were sealed, said Lt. Col. Ken Knox, a civil affairs officer from Riverdale, Md.
On the doors of the guesthouses and the locks of the kennels were pieces of tape bearing the signature of Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim and the date March 20, the same day that U.S. troops crossed the Iraqi border from Kuwait in their drive to remove Hussein from power. DeCamp, commander of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, said that Ibrahim did not appear on his list of the 55 most wanted Iraqi officials and that no other identifying details were known about him.
"I bet he was probably the last guy out of here," said DeCamp, whose regiment is a unit of the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade.
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 money cache and immediately alerted senior officers.
Soldiers broke through walls of cinderblock and cement that apparently had been hastily erected over the doors and windows of some of the guesthouses. In each room they entered, they found 20 aluminum boxes stuffed with $100,000 in 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 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 an elaborate 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 soldiers hid the box -- which still contained some of the cache -- near where they 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 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 C. Blount III, the 3rd Infantry Division commander, and Col. John E. Sterling, the division chief of staff, watched Task Force 4-64 soldiers break apart the cinderblock walls covering the entrances to the other six.
Officials have yet to determine what to do with the money. At present, "this money belongs to the U.S. government," and stealing it would be punishable as "theft of U.S. government property," DeCamp said.
But according to a Central Command spokesman in Qatar, Lt. Mark Kitchens, "all money found is the property of the Iraqi people." He told the Reuters news agency, "The riches of the nation of Iraq, whether money, oil or art, belong to the people, and we intend to ensure they get it."