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Mideast edition, Saturday, August 25, 2007

For the first time, the Iraqi army has completed a money delivery without the help of U.S. troops, officials said late Thursday.

The Iraqi troops escorted a shipment of more than $38 million in cash — around 49 billion in Iraqi dinars — from the Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad to an “undisclosed location” in Baqouba, about 50 miles north of the capital.

The money is to be used by the Diyala provincial government to pay salaries and pensions for local residents, some 70 percent of whom rely on the government for their income. From Baqouba, the money will be sent to rural banks and distributed to roughly 1.3 million people.

“The [Baqouba] bank had recently become several months behind on payments to workers and retirees, largely due to repeated attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq on convoys and Diyala-area banks,” a U.S. military news release read.

Iraq’s banking system has been a problem since the war began. Because of a relatively fragile banking infrastructure, cash transactions have always been favored. But, insurgents and thieves have targeted the banks.

In mid-July, guards of a bank in downtown Baghdad allegedly robbed it of $282 million in American currency and escaped into the city with one the largest hauls in history, Iraqi officials said.

Iraqi security officials continue to investigate the crime, but speculation was that because the robbers were able to get through the various checkpoints in Baghdad, they were tied to militias or rogue security forces. The guards reportedly slept in the bank as part of their regular duties but have not been seen since the robbery.

The heist was the second largest in Iraqi history. In March 2003, just hours before the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq began, Saddam Hussein and members of his family took an estimated $1 billion in cash from Iraq’s Central Bank.

In that incident, Hussein’s sons and other high-ranking government officials essentially abducted bank managers, forced them to open vaults and then drove off with the money in three trucks.

At various times throughout the war, military officials have announced the finding and seizure of huge amounts of cash and gold. Much of the money has been tied to financing the insurgency.

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