saddam loved gold

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    U.S. troops intercept 3rd 'gold truck' fleeing Iraq

    By Paul Salopek | Foreign Correspondent
    Posted June 8, 2003

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    KIRKUK, Iraq -- Another battered truck hauling what appears to be a dazzling fortune in gold bars was stopped at a routine U.S. Army checkpoint in Iraq on Wednesday, the third such cache of bullion seized in two weeks.

    An officer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the unit that detained the truck near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, said that 1,183 ingots were recovered in the latest bust.

    The seizure fits a pattern established by two similar gold-laden vehicles stopped by U.S. troops in late May. All the trucks appeared to have originated in Baghdad and seemed to be heading for either the Syrian or Iranian border.

    "Same modus operandi," the American officer said, on condition of anonymity. "Mercedes truck. Bad registration. Trying to pass it [the gold] off as brass."

    More than 4,100 gold bars have been confiscated so far from the rusty beds of old trucks trundling down the bomb-cratered roads of Iraq. The combined value of the gold has been calculated at between $718 million and $1 billion -- the worst act of plunder in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's younger son, Qusai, swiped $1 billion in cash from the Central Bank.

    The source of such vast quantities of gold in war-bruised Iraq remains a tantalizing mystery.

    U.S. officials have kept mum about the case. Ordinary Iraqis fascinated by the tale of the "gold trucks" have spawned conflicting rumors. Some say the loot is Kuwaiti gold seized during the 1990 Iraqi invasion, while others insist it is treasure pried from thousands of looted Baath Party safety-deposit boxes in Baghdad.

    But a source close to the U.S. investigation said that all the truck-borne ingots share the same strange characteristic: The bars aren't pure, like the bullion found at Fort Knox, but crudely melted bricks of jewelry. That obscure detail convinces many knowledgeable Iraqis that the gold's journey stretches all the way back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and into Saddam's greedy pockets.

    "Iraq has no major gold reserves, and no Iraqi banks ever held this much private jewelry," said Daya al-Khayoun, director general of Iraq's state-run Rafideen Bank, which saw 60 of its 70 Baghdad branch offices gutted by looters after the war.

    "What was found in those trucks has to be the gold Saddam asked Iraqis to donate to fight the Iran war," al-Khayoun said. "That gold helped keep him in power."

    During the bleakest years of the conflict between Iran and Iraq, Saddam and his ministers appeared on Iraqi television, exhorting citizens to contribute their jewelry to the war effort. Some of that jewelry ended up being hammered into a solid gold carriage for Saddam, which broke under its own weight during a 1996 parade.

    But the bulk of the people's patriotic largess ended up unspent in state vaults beneath Iraq's Central Bank or in Saddam's presidential palaces, al-Khayoun said.

    How it may have gotten smelted hastily into ingots, loaded onto 2-ton Mercedes-Benz trucks and carted out of the city is still a puzzle.

    Paul Salopek is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

    Copyright © 2003, Orlando Sentinel
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