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Iraq graft probe focuses on US officers

Federal authorities examining the early,chaotic days of the $125 billion US-led effort to rebuild Iraq...

Written by New York Times | Published: February 16, 2009 12:22 am

Federal authorities examining the early,chaotic days of the $125 billion US-led effort to rebuild Iraq have significantly broadened their inquiry to include senior American military officers who oversaw the programme,according to interviews with senior officials and court documents.

Court records show that last month investigators subpoenaed the personal bank records of Colonel Anthony B Bell,who is now retired from the Army but who was in charge of reconstruction contracting in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 when the small operation grew into a frenzied attempt to remake the country’s broken infrastructure. Investigators are also examining the activities of Lt Col Ronald W Hirtle of the Air Force,who was a senior contracting officer in Baghdad in 2004.

It is not clear what specific evidence exists against the two men,and both said they had nothing to hide. Yet officials say several criminal cases over the past few years point to widespread corruption in the operation the men helped to run. As part of the inquiry,the authorities are taking a fresh look at information given to them by Dale C Stoffel,an American arms dealer and contractor killed in Iraq in late 2004.

Before he was shot on a road north of Baghdad,Stoffel drew a portrait worthy of a pulp crime novel: tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad,and payoffs made in paper sacks that were scattered in “dead drops” around the Green Zone,the nerve center of the US government’s presence in Iraq,federal officials said.

Stoffel,who gave investigators information about the office where Colonel Bell and Colonel Hirtle worked,was deemed credible enough that he was granted limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his information,according to government documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with officials and Stoffel’s lawyer,John H Quinn Jr. There is no evidence that his death was related to his allegations of corruption.

Prosecutors have won 35 convictions on cases related to reconstruction in Iraq,yet most of them involved private contractors or midlevel officials. The current inquiry is aiming at higher-level officials. Although Colonel Bell and Colonel Hirtle were military officers,they worked in a civilian contracting office. “These long-running investigations continue to mature and expand,embracing a wider array of potential suspects,” a federal investigator said.

The probe,being conducted by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction,the Justice Department and other federal agencies,cover a period when millions of dollars in cash,often in stacks of shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills,were dispensed from a loosely guarded safe in the basement of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

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