BAGHDAD — Two Army sergeants went searching for saws Friday to clear away branches that were blocking their Humvees. But they stumbled across a sealed-up cottage that aroused their curiosity -- and ultimately led to the discovery of an estimated $650 million in cash.
The sergeants tore down a cinder-block and concrete barricade at the cottage door and found 40 sealed galvanized aluminum boxes lined up neatly on the stone floor. Breaking open one box, they were stunned to discover 40 sealed stacks of uncirculated $100 bills -- $100,000 per stack, or $4 million in the box. In all, the 40 boxes were assumed to contain $160 million.
But there was more.
In an adjacent cottage in an exclusive Tigris River neighborhood where senior Baath Party and Republican Guard officials had lived, the sergeants found another 40 aluminum boxes assumed to contain another $160 million in currency. In a matter of minutes, they had uncovered $320 million in cash.
"I need to call my wife and tell her we were multimillionaires for about three seconds," Staff Sgt. Kenneth Buff said as he stood next to a box stuffed with sealed bundles of currency.
Their discovery set off a nighttime search of abandoned estates tucked among parks and canals. By 11 p.m., soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division had found two more cottages containing at least 84 more boxes presumed to hold $336 million in cash, for a total of $656 million.
The loot apparently was hidden by fleeing Baath Party members and senior Republican Guard commanders who had lived in the wooded neighborhood just east of Saddam Hussein's Presidential Palace. Commanders scrambled to secure the area overnight before word of the discoveries triggered a crush of fortune seekers.
Officials did not immediately confirm that the currency was legal tender, but an Army private here who said he had worked for an armored car company examined the bills and called them genuine.
Taylor Griffin, a U.S. Treasury spokesman, offered assurances that any cash retrieved from Hussein's regime would be held aside for the people of Iraq. "If we find money and it's not counterfeit, any assets belonging to Saddam Hussein and his cronies will be returned to the Iraqis," Griffin said.
Soldiers of the division's 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment were ordered to stop searching the area shortly before midnight after commanders found that $600,000 was missing from an opened box. Officers said the cash was recovered in a tree and three soldiers were questioned.
The cash boxes were loaded onto trucks and escorted by military police to division headquarters at Baghdad's international airport for counting and security. Commanders said they did not know the ultimate disposition of the currency. Cash recovered by the same battalion from a botched bank robbery Thursday was held for a new transitional government being formed, officers said.
The staggering sums illustrate the fabulous wealth accumulated by Hussein and his ruling elite. Searches of their luxurious homes in the two-mile-long palace complex over the previous week had found flashy automobiles, private zoos, expensive liquor, a cabin cruiser, huge weapons caches and gilded furniture, but very little reported cash.
Now it appears that Hussein's top echelon and perhaps Hussein himself were unable to carry out all of the regime's money when they fled the U.S. attack, and instead sealed the currency in the cottages near their homes.
Officers said they did not know the source of the currency. Each aluminum box was sealed with metal rivets and hard plastic straps. Green tags read, in English and Arabic: "Jordan National Bank," followed by a serial number.
A former Iraqi government official who requested anonymity said the money almost certainly was stashed by members of the Baath Party's upper echelon, perhaps at the direction of Hussein himself or one of his two sons, Uday or Qusai.
The former official said Hussein's government received hard currency for virtually all of the oil smuggling that has provided a source of revenue not subject to United Nations oversight under the oil-for-food program.
At the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the former official said, Hussein's regime had accumulated $4 billion to $6 billion in cash.
"I suspect they have been stashing funds for some time just in case this war didn't go well. I'm sure that if they keep searching, they'll find lots of these galvanized steel boxes all over the place," the former official said. "It's either illicit money accumulated by Uday, who basically is in charge of the economy, trade, smuggling oil and what have you, or it was put there by the security people, who report to Qusai."