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Wednesday, May 14

U.S. reports recovery of Iraqi assets

By Glenn Blain | GNS

WASHINGTON - The bulk of the money from a $1 billion heist of the Iraqi central bank undertaken by one of Saddam Hussein's sons just before the war began likely never left the country and has already been recovered by U.S. forces, a Treasury official testified Wednesday.

Money from the bank, which initially was thought to have been transported across the Syrian border in tractor-trailers, is just one part of other large stashes of cash uncovered by military personnel in Iraq since Saddam's regime fell, said David Aufhauser, general counsel at the Treasury Department. He did not specify where in Iraq or when the bank money was recovered but indicated that it was part of previously publicized discoveries of currency.

``The money that was plundered that evening, there is a high degree of confidence we've located 850 U.S. million dollars of it and 100 million of euros,'' Aufhauser told reporters after testifying before the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee. ``The money that (journalists) wrote about being found, a large portion of it we suspect is the plundered money from the central bank.''

Aufhauser and two other Bush administration officials testified at the subcommittee's hearing on efforts to locate and repatriate Iraqi assets looted by Saddam and his cohorts. He also reported that in the past three weeks, the Treasury Department has located $1.2 billion worth of Iraqi assets hidden in foreign banks, including $495 million that was held in Lebanon's central bank.

The newly recovered money, along with about $1 billion that remains from Iraqi assets frozen after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, will be used to pay for Iraq's reconstruction, he said. About $91 million has already been turned over to the Department of Defense to pay for immediate needs in the country, he added.

E. Anthony Wayne, assistant secretary for economic and business affairs at the State Department, told the panel that the administration has contacted more than 20 nations where it suspects Iraqi assets might be hidden and, so far, is satisfied with the level of cooperation.

The officials cautioned, however, that locating and retrieving Iraqi funds is a difficult process that involves a tangle of legalities that differ from country to country.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., said after the hearing that she was ``partially satisfied'' that the administration was taking adequate steps to recover Iraqi money. Kelly and three other members of the Financial Services Committee, including Chairman Michael G. Oxley of Ohio and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the panel's top Democrat, asked the General Accounting Office on Wednesday to study the government's ability to obtain financial assets from Saddam and other dictators.

``We are going to continue to follow what is happening, with regard to making sure the Iraqi people get their money back,'' Kelly said.

The heist at the Iraqi central bank, which was widely reported in American newspapers this month, was touted as perhaps the most glaring example of the Iraqi regime's plundering of the country's fortune. It was done, according to published reports, under the direct order of Saddam and orchestrated about a day before U.S. bombing began March 19 by his second son, Qusay.

While administration officials never said the money was in Syria, there was speculation by some in the government that it had been transported there in trucks. That was based on intelligence reports that a series of tractor-trailers crossed over the Iraq-Syria border shortly after the robbery.

Aufhauser said officials traced the money through detailed records made by bank officials as Qusay and his associates were packing the money in boxes. Of nearly 250 boxes of money that were packed that night, 191 have been accounted for, he said.

``There was this firm accounting, tying the money to specific boxes packed that night,'' Aufhauser said.

While Aufhauser said he did not know exactly where the money was found, he stressed that ``it was in Iraq, it wasn't in Syria.''