Baghdad's banks stripped as US soldiers stand by

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The Independent Online

A wave of brazen bank robberies has swept through the centre of Baghdad in the past few days in full view of the occupying American forces, and the astonishing dimensions are only now becoming clear.

A wave of brazen bank robberies has swept through the centre of Baghdad in the past few days in full view of the occupying American forces, and the astonishing dimensions are only now becoming clear.

A tour of 20 banks in the city by The Independent yesterday found 15 wrecked, torched and looted. Even the front doors are missing from a few. US dollars, Iraqi dinars, toilet bowls and dirt-cheap light fittings have been stolen, leaving some Iraqis, whose average earnings are less than £2,500 a year, facing the loss of their life savings.

Ala al-Nasir, professional translator aged 50, is among those desperate to know whether they will ever see their money again. He had the equivalent of £7,600 in a branch of the state-owned Rasheed Bank, which was stripped bare. "It was the harvest of my life's work," he said. "There are plenty others in my neighbourhood like me."

A US Abrams tank, several armoured fighting vehicles and a company of marines have finally been stationed at the Iraqi Central Bank, unsubtly marking their presence by flying the US flag in front of the towering, fortress-style building.

But they were deployed only on Thursday afternoon, eight days after the US troops arrived in the city centre. For at least two days, the bank, and two others that adjoin it – the headquarters of the Rasheed and Rafidian banks – had been looted by men armed with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, knives and welding torches.

The attackers reduced the Central Bank, a modern, nine-storey building rumoured to hold great wealth, to a total wreck, floors strewn with charred Iraqi dinar bank notes, shattered glass and prised-open cupboards and safes.

Within hours of the marines' deployment at the bank, they shot dead three Iraqi men on the street with their tank's 7.62mm machine-guns. No one knows how many civilians have been shot by American soldiers in Baghdad in similar circumstances. The dead men were not connected with the people raiding the bank.

"Unfortunately, we killed the good guys," said Lieutenant Patrick Spencer, 35, of the US Marines 13/4 company, "We found that out later by looking at their ID. The marines on the guns are not at all happy about what happened."

He said the Iraqis arrived from out of town unaware of a night curfew and had misunderstood instructions to leave the area. Warning shots were fired at their tyres, he said.

The Americans have also been astounded by the ferocity of the attacks on banks. They say the raiders have been shooting and killing one another in the rush to grab the booty.

The failure of the Americans to do anything to stop the robberies is fuelling the unfolding anti-American sentiment. It also means that the business of unraveling compensation and insurance claims, and creating a banking system in the aftermath of the war, will be an immense undertaking.

Rumours abound that the bank raids were organised, a view also widely held about the burning of buildings containing ministries and antiquities. Many sceptical Iraqis say the Americans moved swiftly to protect the oil and interior ministries but allowed other buildings to go up in smoke and hospitals to be looted.

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