Traffic stop turns up possible gold bars

27 Jul 2003 | Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Local police stopped an oil truck in Al Hillah July 27 and discovered more than 1,000 metal bars that coalition authorities suspect are gold.

If tests reveal that the misshapen bars hidden inside the tanker are indeed gold, the cache could be worth as much as $80 million, said Maj. Jose Casado, operations officer for 1st Battalion, 4th Marines

Casado said the discovery was made from a routine traffic stop when the truck was stopped for improper license plates.

Subsequently, the truck was taken to a city impound lot, where it was held for three days. Officials said this is usually done until the violation is settled. However, the owners of the hidden stash impatiently tipped their hand, he said.

"The governor's office received a call from someone offering 15 million dinars for the truck," said Manila, Philippines native Casado. "Representatives of the governor declined. The office was then offered 30 million dinars."

Casado said that in the past such a bribe would have been scooped up hurriedly by government officials and the truck released. However, the fact that the bribe was rejected reflects that the Al Hillah government, which was corruptible under Saddam Hussein's former regime, is now beyond reproach. 

However the impromptu offer, which is equivalent to about $30,000, piqued the curiosity of the governor and the Marines,

"He put together a hasty security team and that's when they discovered what was in there," Casado said.

The Marines began the task of removing the bars and counting them when they soon realized the load was too large to handle without help.

It was strenuous exercise, said Lt. Stan Bednar, the battalion's logistics officer, who compared moving the bulky gold-colored bars from the truck to "moving 40-pound dumbbells."

The potential value of the cargo wasn't lost on the Marines, who earn considerably less while conducting daily patrols in the steamy Iraqi climate.

"You think in the back of your mind, 'What would I do?'" Bednar said, recalling what it would mean to have just a fraction of the precious cargo.

Realizing that the truck should be moved to a more secure site, the battalion transferred the truck and its contents to Camp Babylon while the investigation continues. The investigation is being conducted by the Baghdad-based Combined Joint Task Force 7, which has operational control of all military forces within Iraq, including multinational forces.

According to Maj. David Holahan, the battalion's executive officer from Philadelphia, the bars will undergo metallurgic testing to determine their makeup. Tests done recently on two large caches of metal bars confiscated from smugglers in northern Iraq in May turned out to be copper from melted-down shell casings.

"A lot of smuggling happens in trash trucks," said Holahan, referring to scrap metal and copper that is found periodically in municipal vehicles.

However, if tests reveal the cargo to be gold it would be large coup for the Al Hillah residents - many who are of the opinion that the money should be spent on Iraq's reconstruction.

"The bottom line the gold belongs to the people of Iraq," Casdo said.

If the bars reveal something less precious, the people will profit anyway, Holahan said.

"They need some hope, even if turns out to be brass," he said.