The U.S. military is not only trying to stop terrorists and arms from leaking into Iraq from Syria and Iran but also another just as dangerous commodity — cash.
It’s the lifeblood of the enemy — whether they be al Qaeda terrorists, death squads or Sunnis trying to evict American forces and bring back dictator Saddam Hussein — and U.S. raiders have seized millions of dollars in cash during the conflict.
Military officials point to Syria and its secretive banking system as the main source of Sunni walking-around money, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard funnels money to Shi’ite militias, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
The enemy’s money began flowing into Iraq with the start of the insurgency in the summer of 2003, and the shipments are still coming in.
“There are billions coming in,” said Daniel Gallington, a former aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “The Middle East is the center of graft and corruption in the universe. It really always has been. The fight in Iraq is about who controls what area is really all about who controls the money.”
Money, of course, is just as essential to the insurgents as budget dollars are to the American armed forces. Terrorists need it to buy loyalty from local villagers, bomb-making gear, vehicles and electronics to communicate and to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Perhaps the most important expenditure is salaries: Sunnis have enlisted thousands of disaffected youths, some enjoying their first paydays ever, by giving them cash to attack Americans, plant IEDs and run messages from one leader to another, say defense sources and officers who served in Iraq.
“The average IED is an attack form carried out by people that are really not ideologically committed,” Gen. John Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, told a group of reporters. “They get paid, and they’re getting paid because they don’t have any money and they’re getting paid because they’ve got people [who] are generally members of the old army that don’t have work.”
Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, gave a glimpse of the money trail earlier this month when describing a raid in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. Raiders hit a number of businesses in the city, seizing millions of dollars that had come in from Syria.
“These funds, estimated to be in the millions of dollars per week, were used to finance insurgent operations, to include attacks against Iraqi civilians, as well as Iraqi and coalition security forces,” Gen. Caldwell said.
Although the raid was designed to block the cash flow, defense sources say there is more where that came from.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, the former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, said literally tons of cash moved from Baghdad into Syria as the U.S. invasion neared in March 2003. That money is now going full circle to feed the Sunni insurgency.
“We watched caravans going into Syria,” Gen. DeLong said. “They took their money; their jewels. They took everything.”
But not all the cash got out.
“We found U.S. money all through the capital,” Gen. DeLong said. “Saddam and the Ba’ath Party had caches of U.S. money stashed everywhere. One day, one guy found $10 million in cash.”
The Ba’ath Party had built up huge cash stocks via the United Nations oil-for-food program, mostly from illicit sale of goods and oil. The U.S. military seized $926 million from the Iraq regime as of the summer of 2004, according to a report from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.