Baghdad revealed as bank robbery capital of the world

The attack had been planned with military precision. Twelve men, masked and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles stormed into the al-Sanik branch of the Bank of Baghdad, disarmed the guards, tied them up and then terrified the staff by firing into the ceiling. About $800,000 (£400,000) in US dollars and Iraqi dinars was grabbed before the gang drove away in three cars, untroubled by the many checkpoints in the area.

The raid was just the latest of a long and lucrative line that sees, on average, a million dollars a month being taken at gunpoint. Bank executives have been kidnapped from their homes for ransoms as high as $6mn. Amid the bombs and gunfire, there is one "industry" is doing remarkably well – Baghdad is now the bank robbery capital of the world.

Iraq holds the world record for both the first and second highest amounts taken in the history of bank robberies. Top of the league is the estimated $800m removed from the Central Bank by Saddam Hussein's son, Qusay, in the dying days of the regime as US tanks were rolling into Baghdad.

In second position is the heist, just two months ago, at the Dar al-Salam Bank at Sadoun Street in central Baghdad when three guards turned on their employers and left with $282m.

Other banks hit recently has been the al-Rafidian which lost $1.2m; the Industry Bank, which had $784,000 taken; Iraqi Trade Bank, $1.8m ; the Bank of Baghdad, $ 1.6m; al-Warka Bank, $750,000; The Middle East Investment Bank, $1.32m... the list goes on.

Four years after "liberation" and the coming of the free market, Iraq is almost entirely a cash economy with a mushrooming group of private banks and vast sums of money being moved daily across the country.

The US authorities praised the rise of the private banking sector as one of the success stories of Iraq.

But the upsurge in robberies has meant that some branches have been unable to pay customers because of lack of cash.

One thing Iraq is not short of is men with guns. The banks, and their money convoys, are easy pickings. The security forces have their hands full with the insurgency and Shia militia groups and, in any case, are themselves suspected of carrying out many of the robberies.

Firas Ali Suleiman, a driver for the Bank of Baghdad described how a van carrying $1.6m from its Hilla branch to Baghdad was ambushed. "It was a Kia van and it was not armoured, but we had four guards with the money inside," he said.

"We were stopped at a checkpoint in Audiya run by the Ministry of Interior commandos. They ordered the back door to be opened and saw the money. The guards were called out and then put in handcuffs and hooded. I could hear them talking about the money and then they took the money out. I was told to drive away and I called the manager on my mobile and told him what happened.

"The next roadblock was by the Mehdi Army (Shia militia). I think they, too, were expecting to get some money but, by then, of course, it was gone. The police were called later but they did nothing."

Khalid Mohammed, the manager called by Mr Suleiman, is convinced most of the robberies take place with inside help. "I have been at a bank branch when the men with guns came. They knew exactly where the money was and, when they left, they went straight past all the checkpoints, no one searched their cars or asked any questions.

"Before the war we just had a few banks, now there are lots of private ones, so less security, and more opportunity for stealing."

Armed convoys, with darkened windows move through Baghdad every day.. They could be ministerial escorts, private security firms, or, as the police point out, robbers – and it is impossible for police to tell which is which.

Iraq's biggest heists

1: Central Bank (2003): $800m (£400m)

2: Dar al-Salam (2007): $282m

3. Iraqi Trade Bank (2007): $1.8m

4: Bank of Baghdad (2007): $1.6m

5: MEI Bank (2007): $1.32m