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Perspective

A Shiite's belly bag of cash

When the billions in cash became news, I flashed back to meeting an Iraqi money man.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published February 18, 2007


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On April 10, 2003, U.S. soldiers brought a hacked and bleeding Shiite leader named Timimi to the desert medical tent near Najaf, Iraq, where I was an embedded reporter.

After an American doctor stitched up several 4-inch gashes on his forehead and scalp, Timimi untied a cloth belly pack and, to my great surprise, held up a thick pile of U.S. $100 bills. He counted out $18,000 - a small portion, he said, of the $3-million he and 24 other Shiite leaders had been given by the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority. The purpose of the money: to distribute as they saw fit to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Timimi and other Iraqi leaders in Najaf were in the fifth day of pressing $100 bills into the hands of Iraqi civilians when their part in the program went afoul.

Now, almost four years later, while a U.S. congressional committee on "oversight and government reform" investigates what happened to $12-billion in cash distributed by the CPA, which seems to have disappeared, Timimi's story about the money bears telling.

On April 9, 2003, he and 24 Iraqi clerics, widely touted as pro-Western, met at the sacred Imam Ali Mosque in downtown Najaf. Their plan: to announce to the crowd gathered outside that Najaf would soon be reconstructed and all would be well. U.S. intelligence officers had given each of them a satellite phone and told them to press a button if they needed help. But when members of an angry mob began shooting at them and the clerics frantically pressed the buttons on the phones, no one showed up.

Loaded down with the CPA cash, Timimi and his group ran into a small room in the mosque and locked the door, but the crowd shot through the door. In response, the group's leader, Abdul Majiid Al-Khoei (touted by U.S. officials "as the best hope for a democratic Iraq") shot a pistol in the air and yelled at the crowd to stop shooting so no one would get hurt.

"He said he wanted peace and prosperity for them, but no one cared," said Timimi, who was from Samawah, a city the size of Tampa on the Euphrates 130 miles south of Baghdad.

The crowd broke into the room and pulled Al-Khoei and others outside. Al-Khoei was stabbed to death. Timimi wrenched himself away from two men who held him down while another hacked at his head with a sword. Once free, he ran to a nearby house where the people hid him for several hours before driving him to a U.S. Army checkpoint. From there, soldiers brought him to the MASH tent south of Najaf, where my translator and I talked to him.

"Had it not been for my pack of U.S. $100 bills," Timimi told us, "the soldiers would not have brought me here for medical treatment. But the cash convinced them I was linked to the U.S., and so they helped me."

Earlier in the day, the bloody body of Al- Khoei was discovered in the Najaf cemetery along with the bodies of his assistant and the mosque custodian. Their money packs, filled with the $100 bills, were gone.

Two weeks later, the deputy custodian of the mosque, Jabar Khanee Jaafer, who witnessed the killings but who escaped alive, told me that he had seen aides of Muqtada Al-Sadr take the money.

Before dark on April 10, a small U.S. Army helicopter landed in the sand at the drab green MASH tent. Flanked by nurses, Timimi walked from the cool darkness into the blinding desert sunlight. With his belly pack of cash tied beneath his robe, he climbed aboard. But where the man and the money went, I just don't know.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 20:54:28]


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