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IRAQ: Terror or corruption? Central Bank attack is probed

July 2, 2010 | 11:13 am

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Iraqi authorities are investigating a fire that destroyed sensitive documents during an apparent Al Qaeda in Iraq attack against the Central Bank of Iraq, amid suspicions that the fire may have been set to destroy evidence in a potentially huge corruption case, officials say.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, claimed responsibility for the June 13 attack, in which about ten gunmen stormed the bank and at least three suicide bombers blew themselves up. Government officials say they still believe Al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible.

The attack triggered a four-hour standoff between police and gunmen, killed 25 people, including seven of the assailants, and sowed widespread panic across downtown Baghdad. Television stations broadcast footage of fires blazing out of control on several floors of the downtown bank headquarters for hours after the attack.

Investigators became suspicious, however, after they discovered that the fire was not caused by any of the explosions, but rather appeared to have been started deliberately in a second-floor room that is used by the inspector general responsible for investigating corruption cases, said Sabah Saadi, who heads the Integrity Committee in Iraq's parliament, charged with monitoring corruption.

According to Saadi, the fire destroyed documents stored in the room that pertained to a particularly sensitive case involving a series of fraudulent checks drawn against accounts held by different companies with state-owned banks. At least $711 million had been found to be missing in the scheme, and two bank managers had been detained as part of an investigation before the fire, he said. But Saadi suspects that the scam may have been much larger and could have involved many more people. 

The investigation into the fire raises tantalizing questions about the nature of the attack, the role of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the extent of corruption in the country.

It is hard to imagine that the kind of ideologue prepared to commit a suicide bombing would do so in order to cover up corruption, Saadi said.

"The one who detonates himself has beliefs," he said. "It is not possible for corrupt people to blow themselves up."

Rather, he thinks that one or more bank employees took advantage of the mayhem caused by the attack to set the fire and destroy the documents. 

But that assumes an extraordinary presence of mind on the part of those caught up in what must have been a terrifying event.

Another possibility is that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the Iraqi banking system and staged the attack to hide its own connections, Saadi said. That theory, however, suggests a far deeper level of institutional infiltration than had previously been suspected on the part of an extremist group that, although still dangerous, has seen its fortunes wane dramatically in recent years.

Other conspiracy theories include the long-standing suspicion among many Iraqis that Al Qaeda is being used as a convenient cover by powerful political forces.

A double suicide bombing eight days later outside the government-owned Trade Bank of Iraq further fueled speculation that someone was bent on destroying bank records.

However, the bank did not catch on fire and no documents were destroyed. The Islamic State of Iraq also claimed responsibility for that attack.
 
-- Liz Sly in Baghdad

Photo: Detail from the website of Iraq's Central Bank.

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