Gold bars pique 173rd's interest at checkpoint
By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 27, 2003
KIRKUK, Iraq — U.S. soldiers seized $80 million to $100 million worth of crudely made, non-minted gold bars Sunday and detained three Iraqis heading east, possibly for the Iranian border, officials said Monday.
Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, manning a routine checkpoint set up on the outskirts of Kirkuk, impounded the truck Sunday and detained the three occupants because the driver’s paperwork and identification did not match the vehicle registration, according to Maj. Kevin Petit, executive officer of the brigade based in Vicenza, Italy.
“That was the probable cause,” Petit said.
Inside the bed of the turquoise Mercedes dump truck were 999 bars of gold, each weighing about 22 pounds, said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, which oversees military operations in northern Iraq. The military based its estimate of value on the weight of the gold.
The three occupants, two Kurds and one Turkmen, told the arresting soldiers and later intelligence officers they had been paid $300 cash to transport what they thought was melted down copper, Petit said. They still were in U.S. custody Monday afternoon for interrogations, he added.
The truck left Baghdad on Saturday and was on its way to As Sulaymaniya, near the border with Iran, he said. The soldiers stopped it Sunday about 10 a.m. at a checkpoint in the south side of town, which has been the site of previous checkpoints, he said.
For now, military leaders are leaning toward believing the three men’s story because no weapons were found in the truck, the trio did not put up any resistance when the dump truck was stopped or impounded, and the gold bars were not concealed in any way, Petit said.
The gold will be analyzed to determine its purity and exact value, and then sent to the Central Iraqi Treasury, Aberle said.
A reservist assigned to the 173rd who works in a gold and jewelry shop in the civilian world told military officials that the find likely was 21-carat gold, Petit said.
The 173rd soldiers who stopped and seized the booty were on patrol Monday afternoon when officials briefed reporters and were unavailable for interviews.
Two days earlier, soldiers stopped another Mercedes dump truck on its way toward the Syrian border hauling a load of 2,000 gold bars that look very similar to the ones seized Monday, he said.
Officials can’t say yet whether the two incidents are linked. “But they do look similar,” Petit said.
None of the drivers had proper documentation and gold is not a natural resource in Iraq, making the transport of so many bars highly suspicious, Aberle said.
Maj. Kevin Petit, executive officer of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, explains how soldiers of the brigade stopped a truck loaded with 999 bars of gold, at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq, on Sunday.
MICHAEL ABRAMS / S&S