Army Probes Alleged Theft of Cash by Troops

Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- Army commanders said Wednesday that American military personnel had removed about $12.3 million from huge caches of U.S. currency that were found by fellow soldiers in recent days in an exclusive neighborhood once home to senior Iraqi officials.

Investigators have recovered all of the stolen money, officials said, and commanders have ordered soldiers not to search for more hidden cash in the area where they discovered about $656 million in boxes inside cottages on Friday. Civil affairs officers found an additional $112 million Tuesday inside kennels in the same area.

One commander said three galvanized aluminum boxes containing an additional $12 million found at the cottages were allegedly removed and hidden by five soldiers for several hours before being recovered by investigators Saturday morning.

Those three boxes of cash had not been reported to commanders. With that amount, a total of about $780 million has been found in sealed structures in a tree-lined Tigris River area at the edge of the sprawling Presidential Palace complex in central Baghdad.

The currency apparently was left behind by Baath Party and Republican Guard officials as they fled the U.S. invasion.

Two of the three stolen boxes, each originally containing $4 million in tightly wrapped bundles of $100,000, were still sealed when they were recovered in a stone-lined canal near a mansion, commanders said. The third, which had been pried open, was retrieved near the operating base of soldiers implicated in the thefts.

A soldier with knowledge of the missing money from the opened box near the base had pangs of guilt and told investigators where to find the cash, said Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, who is participating in the investigation. That soldier has been cleared, he said, but five others are still under investigation.

Those five soldiers, who have not been charged, have cooperated with investigators to varying degrees, according to DeCamp. They face actions ranging from a letter of reprimand to a full court martial, which could include prison time.

The soldiers under investigation are from the 10th Engineer Battalion, which is attached to or under what the military calls "operational control" of Task Force 4-64 of the 2nd Brigade. The Times incorrectly reported in Wednesday's editions that the suspects were members of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, which forms the core of Task Force 4-64.

Officials said investigators on Friday recovered $600,000 hidden in a nearby tree and $300,000 in a cooler on a truck carrying the cash to Baghdad's international airport for counting and safekeeping. On Saturday morning, an additional $200,000 was found in a wooded area near the cottage.

The $300,000 had been removed from a box found earlier Friday night in a separate incident. The remaining $800,000 had been removed from the box recovered near the soldiers' base.

No money has been reported missing from the cache found Tuesday inside seven kennels. Like the cottages, the kennels recently had been sealed shut with cinder blocks and concrete.

All the boxes of cash had been sealed with metal rivets and tied with green plastic tags marked "Bank of Jordan."

Tape on the cottage door handles and the kennel locks bore the signature of a Republican Guard general dated March 20, the day the U.S. ground campaign began in Iraq. A slip of paper inside one box said the money inside was stored on March 16 under the orders of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials have said the cash is being held for the interim Iraqi government that is now being set up under U.S. auspices.

Commanders continued Wednesday to praise the conduct of two enlisted men who found the original caches Friday. Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Van Ess and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Buff immediately summoned commanders.

If troops find any more money, DeCamp said, whoever finds it is under orders to immediately secure the area and notify their commanders, who are to summon military police. Soldiers are not to pry open any more boxes.

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