BAGHDAD, Iraq - In the hours before American bombs began falling on the Iraqi capital, one of Saddam Hussein's sons and a close adviser carried off nearly $1 billion in cash from the country's Central Bank, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials here.
The removal of the money, which would amount to one of the largest bank robberies in history, was performed under the direct orders of Hussein, according to an Iraqi official with knowledge of the incident. The official, who asked not to be identified, said that no financial rationale had been offered for removing the money from the bank's vaults and that no one had been told where the money would be taken.
"When you get an order from Saddam Hussein, you do not discuss it," said the Iraqi official, who held a senior position in a bank under Hussein's government. He said he had been told about the seizure of the cash by the Iraqi financial officials who had turned over the money to Hussein's son and the adviser.
The allegations provide a glimpse into the final days of Hussein's rule - which, with its emphasis on family connections, has often been compared to the Mafia - and perhaps a clue about how he intended to finance his escape and survive out of power.
Qusai Saddam Hussein, Hussein's second son, presided over the seizure of the money with Abid al-Hamid Mahmood, the president's personal assistant, the Iraqi official here said. The seizure occurred at 4 a.m. March 18, less than a day before the first U.S. air assault.
The two men carried a letter from Hussein that bore his signature and authorized the removal of the money, the official said.
The sheer volume of the cash was so great - $900 million in U.S. $100 bills and as much as $100 million worth of euros - that three tractor-trailers were needed to cart it off, the Iraqi official said. It took a team of workers two hours to load the cash. Their work was completed before employees of the downtown Baghdad bank arrived for work.
The seizure of the money was confirmed by a U.S. Treasury official assigned to work with Iraqi financial officers here to rebuild the country's banking and financial system.
Iraqi officials said they were uncertain of the effects that the disappearance of $1 billion would have on the Iraqi economy. The Iraqi official said the removal of the money amounted to about a quarter of the Central Bank's hard-currency reserves.
The $1 billion was nearly twice the amount of hard currency believed to have been looted by Iraqis in the three weeks after the collapse of the Iraqi government. U.S. and Iraqi officials said about $400 million in U.S. dollars and at least $40 million in Iraqi currency were taken by looters from banks across the country after April 9.
The disappearance of such a sizable amount of cash as $1 billion was giving rise to fears here that it is being used to finance remnants of Hussein's government, many of whose senior members are believed to be hiding in Baghdad or its environs. Some members of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization for groups that opposed Hussein, assert that the money may be a central element in what they described as an extensive "post-occupation strategy" devised by Hussein that envisioned an American takeover of the capital and Hussein's plot to eventually return to power.
Neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials claimed to know the whereabouts of the $1 billion or, for that matter, of Saddam Hussein, Qusai Hussein or Mahmood. All three men are being sought by the United States.
The Iraqi official insisted on anonymity because, he said, he feared that he could fall victim to Hussein or one of his associates who remain at large.
Some Americans said they suspect the money may have been spirited across the border into Syria, in much the same way some senior officials in Hussein's government were believed to have fled Iraq.
Col. Ted Seel, a U.S. Army special forces officer who said he was aware of the seizure of money from the Central Bank, said intelligence information at the time indicated that a group of tractor-trailers crossed the Iraqi border into Syria. Seel, who is assigned to the Iraqi National Congress, said the contents of the trucks were unknown.
Hussein held near-absolute power in his government, and so, in a sense, it is unclear what laws might have been violated by the cash seizure. But the Iraqi bank official said the country's banks had been largely left alone during Hussein's years in power. He said Hussein and his family would sometimes demand cash from Iraqi banks but not in the amounts said to have been taken March 18.
"Sometimes they would come in for small amounts, maybe $5 million," the official said.
George Mullinax, an official with the Treasury Department, said the money had been taken by "Saddam Hussein's people." He put the figure taken at $900 million.