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Monday, July 28

U.S. seizing, recycling Saddam's millions

By John Carlson | The Des Moines Register

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait - The Army calls it a ``finance mission,'' which sounds pretty dull. Until the MPs with the machine guns tell the Iowa National Guard truck drivers what they'll be hauling.

It's $50 million cash, part of the hundreds of millions of dollars stashed away by Saddam Hussein and located by American troops after the fall of Baghdad.

This day, the soldiers of the Guard's 1168th Transportation Company are carrying a pallet-load of Saddam's cash to the airport in Kuwait City an hour away.

To the men and women of the Red Oak, Iowa-based unit, it's sort of fun, but not really a big deal.

``I know for a fact our unit has transported over $2 billion since we've been here," said 1st Sgt. David Carstens of Panora, Iowa. The 1168th has carried more than $100 million in a single trip to the airport.

The money, heavily guarded and locked in a warehouse on this giant desert military base, is transported by military plane from Baghdad to the Kuwait City airport. It's checked for authenticity before being put into circulation in Iraq.

If the bills are too large to be of practical use in Iraq's struggling economy, the money is sent to the United States, exchanged for smaller denominations and returned to Kuwait.

Then it's flown back to Baghdad and used in the rebuilding of Iraq, as well as for paying soldiers and workers.

This mission begins at 5 a.m., when four Iowa soldiers climb into the cabs of two 5-ton tractor-trailer rigs and drive a mile to the warehouse.

MPs are waiting. Five of their Humvees, two with top-mounted machine guns, will escort the Iowa trucks to Kuwait City.

``We have only one pallet of cargo, but we take two trucks,'' said Sgt. Richard Slack, 46, of Ankeny. ``One is a dummy. It's also there in case the truck with the cash breaks down. We'd transfer it by hand to the other truck and keep going.''

Keeping going is a very big part of this operation. The convoy hits the four-lane highway outside the base, and the MPs block every intersection. Nothing - not red lights, not cross traffic - stops the trucks.

``We're too vulnerable if we stop,'' said Slack. ``This would seem to be a safe mission in what has been a fairly safe area. But you never know, especially when you haul this kind of cargo.''

They hurry past sheep-herders and camels roaming around the desert. They pass pickups and small trucks jammed with shaggy, long-eared sheep.

``Must be sale-barn day,'' said Sgt. James Kastner, a 23-year-old farmer-welder-truck driver from Bagley.

Kastner and his partner, Sgt. Jason Cowell, 25, of Northwood, chat about their time here as they beat the early-morning traffic into Kuwait City. Cowell talks about the poverty they saw in southern Iraq on one of their missions north.

``Little kids, some of them 2 years old, standing out in this heat - 130 degrees, no shoes - begging for food, rubbing their tummies,'' he said. ``I never imagined poverty like that.''

Which makes the cargo in the lead truck even more interesting. Saddam stashed billions in foreign currency, most of it American dollars, over the years. Some Iraqis were near starvation. Saddam lived in palaces, and $50 million of his cash is right here.

The MPs ``keep moving'' plan falls apart when the trucks reach the gate at the military section of the Kuwait City airport. The holdup? Another bunch of MPs.

The MPs guarding the gate tell the MPs escorting the convoy that they have to follow the rules everybody else follows. Which means they have to ``clear their weapons'' before entering the base.

In other words, no bullets in their guns.

No way, say the armed escorts.

``You will clear your weapons,'' says the gate MP.

``We will not clear our weapons,'' says the lead escort MP.

``You will.''

``I ain't clearing s--.''

Stalemate, with $50 million cash in an Iowa National Guard truck outside the gate.

Everybody gets on cell phones.

Twenty minutes pass, and the escort MPs win. Guns still loaded, they lead the trucks to the tarmac.

The money, sealed in metal boxes and covered in plastic, is taken into a hangar, weighed, and then gently laid on the pavement.

A few minutes later, an Illinois National Guard C-130 cargo plane lands. The forklift takes the cash a couple of hundred yards to the plane.

Another foul-up. The large metal pallet the money sits on is warped, the plane's crew says. Sorry. Can't secure the load properly. Can't haul it that way.

The money is pulled off the plane and dropped on the pavement.

The MPs wait.

``Typical for this deployment,'' one of the MPs says.

The truck drivers wait. They may have to take it back to the base. They shrug and pull out a couple of canvas camping chairs.

``We've had to wait 15 hours when this sort of thing happens,'' said Cowell.

"Not with money, but hauling other stuff. This might take a while."

A couple of more MPs, these two driving white Nissan pickups with .30-caliber machine guns mounted in the back, pull up a few yards away.

Nobody wants this money sitting around.

Particularly the gentleman, clearly someone in authority, who pulls up to the plane in a brown SUV. He speaks with the plane's crew. Fifteen minutes later, the money is in the air, heading north.