Lebanon seizes airplane, billions in Iraqi currency

Shiites threaten protests unless administration holds direct elections

January 17, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Lebanese security officials in Beirut seized a plane Thursday that had arrived from Baghdad carrying 19.5 billion in new Iraqi dinars, or about $12 million, said Lebanese journalists who spoke to the country's prosecutor general. The officials then detained three Lebanese businessmen for questioning on possible smuggling charges, the journalists said.

Separately, in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani told worshipers at Friday prayers that protests would be held if the American-led administration of Iraq refused to hold direct elections as part of its effort to turn over governance of the country to Iraqis by July 1.

One of the men detained in Lebanon, Muhammad Issam Abu Darwish, the scion of a prominent Shiite family from southern Lebanon, told investigators that the money had come from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and was intended to buy armored cars. Darwish went to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and opened a private security company, the journalists said the prosecutor's office had told them.

The old dinars with Hussein's likeness were fully phased out on Thursday and replaced with new notes with pictures of Iraqi landmarks. But the value of the dinar has risen considerably against the dollar over the past month, going from 1,600 dinars to the dollar to about 1,200 now, opening ripe opportunities for currency speculation.

Many Iraqis believe that the value of the dinar is rising in large part because of such speculation as well as smuggling, because both activities take money out of circulation. With the dollar weaker, those Iraqis who work for the state and whose salaries are pegged to the dollar have seen their earnings in dinars fall, while prices of goods have stayed the same.

The Coalition Provisional Authority did not return calls seeking comment on the issue.

In Baghdad, the deputy commander of the Army's 1st Armored Division, which has oversight for much of the city, told the Associated Press that there would be fewer patrols by U.S. soldiers and fewer garrisons after his unit turned over security for the city to a new unit arriving over the next few months.

Attacks on Americans and Iraqis still shake Baghdad daily, however. A 15-year-old Iraqi boy who was watching American soldiers and Iraqi policemen try to defuse a roadside bomb was killed by shrapnel when the device exploded. Five others were injured, two seriously. The Iraqi police told Agence France-Presse that the bomb had been detonated by the attacker with a remote control device.

In Kerbala, Sheik Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai threatened to unleash a campaign against the Americans if they continue to resist direct elections. "In the coming days and months, we're going to see protests and strikes and civil disobedience, and perhaps confrontations with the occupying force," he said.

Protests have already spread through the Shiite south, with 30,000 demonstrators turning out in Basra on Thursday. The Shiite majority is flexing its muscles, convinced that direct elections would ensure it the power long denied under colonial rule and under Hussein.

Killed in Iraq

The latest identifications of American military personnel killed in Iraq:

Army Sgt. Keicia M. Hines, 27, Citrus Heights, Calif.; died Wednesday when she was struck by a vehicle on an airfield in Mosul, Iraq; assigned to the 108th Military Police, Combat Support Company, Fort Bragg, N.C.

- Associated Press

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