Missing Iraq billions could be 'greatest fraud in US history'
Stephen C. Webster
Published: Monday February 16, 2009

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The US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), the Army's criminal Investigation Command and the Justice Department are investigating US soldiers and officials in the alleged misuse of a portion of the $125 billion initially sent to Iraq for reconstruction shortly after the fall of Saddam.

Monday, The Independent's Iraq correspondent Patrick Cockburn reported the inspectors believe misuse may account for over $50 billion, exceeding the scope of Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme and making it potentially the "greatest fraud in US history."

"In one case, auditors working for SIGIR discovered that $57.8m was sent in 'pallet upon pallet of hundred-dollar bills' to the US comptroller for south-central Iraq, Robert J Stein Jr, who had himself photographed standing with the mound of money," wrote Cockburn. "He is among the few US officials who were in Iraq to be convicted of fraud and money-laundering.

"Despite the vast sums expended on rebuilding by the US since 2003, there have been no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline except those at work building a new US embassy and others rusting beside a half-built giant mosque that Saddam was constructing when he was overthrown."

The SIGIR auditor's report, entitled "Hard Lessons," was published in early February.

"'Hard Lessons,' a draft of which was leaked to the news media in December, concludes that the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq was a failure, largely because there was no overall strategy behind it," reported the Washington Post. "Goals shifted from 'liberation' and an early military exit to massive, ill-conceived and expensive building projects under the Coalition Provisional Authority of 2003 and 2004. Many of those projects -- over budget, poorly executed or, often, barely begun -- were abandoned as security worsened.

"In a preface to the 456-page book, Bowen writes that he knew the reconstruction was in trouble when he first visited Iraq in January 2004 and saw duffel bags full of cash being carried out of the Republican Palace, which housed the U.S. occupation government."

"As part of the inquiry, the authorities are taking a fresh look at information given to them by Dale Stoffel, an American arms dealer and contractor who was killed in Iraq in late 2004," reported the International Herald Tribune on Sunday.

"Before he was shot on a road north of Baghdad, Stoffel drew a portrait worthy of a pulp crime novel: tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad, and payoffs made in paper bags that were scattered in 'dead drops' around the Green Zone, the nerve center of the United States government's presence in Iraq, two senior federal officials said."

"Prosecutors have won 35 convictions on cases related to reconstruction in Iraq, yet most of them involved private contractors or midlevel officials. The current inquiry is aiming at higher-level officials, according to investigators involved in the case, and is also trying to determine if there are connections between those officials and figures in the other cases. Although Bell and Hirtle were military officers, they worked in a civilian contracting office."

So far, there have been just 35 convictions for the misuse of government funds during the reconstruction of Iraq.