Erratic banking system in Iraq frustrates U.S. forces
March 10, 2006
BAGHDAD — Outside the Rafidian Bank branch building, security was tight one recent morning on the usually busy downtown street.
About 50 rifle-toting Iraqi soldiers had sealed off the entire block. An Iraqi sniper team on the ledge of a four-story rooftop kept watch. And an inner perimeter of U.S. troops stood guard outside the bank’s large, brick edifice.
Inside, U.S. Marine Maj. Scott Madziar- czyk was trying to conduct business.
“Open the vault,” Madziarczyk demanded, wearing full body armor and waving a dull black semiautomatic shotgun.
Madziarczyk was not trying to rob the bank, he was simply trying to cash a check — an Iraqi Ministry of Defense check for 1.1 billion Iraqi dinars, or about $800,000.
The U.S. troops planned to walk out with the money stuffed in five large sacks, providing a much-needed infusion of money to pay a brigade of about 2,000 Iraqi army soldiers fighting insurgents in Anbar province.
It was a routine errand for the troops from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees the transfer of power to Iraqi troops and retains many administrative duties, including aspects of the payroll process.
But the transaction failed when a diminutive Iraqi banker in a navy suit unlocked the large metal door and revealed an empty cement-walled room, completely devoid of cash.
“See, no money,” the banker said.
The U.S. troops initially suspected that the banker did not want to do business with Americans and was lying about his cash supply. The bank manager told U.S. troops that on the previous day a truck carrying a load of fresh money was attacked, and several of the carriers were injured. Fear of further attacks made it difficult for the bank to find a new driver willing to transport the cash.
Basic and essential tasks such as paying Iraqi soldiers their roughly $300 monthly salary is a significant challenge in Iraq, where security is a constant concern and the country’s financial infrastructure remains fragile and ineffective.
“This is the reality of the currency situation at an unstable time,” said U.S. Army Maj. Greg Wolpoff, who works in the finance office for the MNSTCI, where among his main responsibilities is helping Iraqi soldiers get paid.
It was the second time in five trips that Wolpoff found an empty bank vault, forcing soldiers to pack up and go home, planning to try again another day, he said.
The prospect of large sacks of cash trading hands draws a serious threat, not from politically motivated insurgents but outright criminals.
“Right now, we are a big target,” said Madziarczyk, operations officer for the MNSTCI finance office.
U.S. troops carefully selected the Rafidian Bank just across the river from the International Zone, which they say is one of the most secure and convenient banks in Baghdad. It is one of several banks troops use for big transactions.
The challenges are magnified by the Iraqi army’s antiquated payroll process, an entirely cash-based system, tracked with paper records and requiring each Iraqi soldier to sign for receipt of his salary.
“It’s a very manual system right now,” Wolpoff said.
Most Iraqi soldiers do not have bank accounts and have to personally transport their money home to their families.
For now, U.S. soldiers typically take possession of the large sums of cash and deliver them directly to the Iraqi army brigades seeking payment. It is part of the oversight process to reduce corruption.
U.S. soldiers may hand over full control of the payroll responsibilities in the future.
“We’re putting together an Iraqi system for auditing,” Wolpoff said. “It’s the same thing we do in our Army: Making sure no one is stealing money from the government.”
In the case of this week’s bank run, U.S troops waited for more than 30 minutes, believing that a truck with cash was en route to the bank. But further conversation with the Iraqi bank manager revealed they were still looking for a driver and it was unclear when to expect the delivery.
“We’re calling an abort to this mission,” Madziarczyk said into his radio. “We’re not sitting in this ambush zone.”
“We decided it’s just not worth it,” he explained to a reporter. “We’ll regroup and try again later.
“Just another fine day in Iraq,” he said as he turned to walk back to his truck.