Five U.S. soldiers have been questioned for allegedly taking about $900,000 from an estimated $600 million in U.S. cash found in boxes last week near Baghdad palace complexes, U.S. military officials say.
Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp, commander of the 4th Battalion, 64th Infantry Regiment, has said most of the money has been recovered.
A senior defense official said Thursday that all members of the unit involved in the discovery of the loot were being interviewed in connection with the theft.
The official, who spoke on condition he not be identified further, said lower-ranking servicemen had reported the missing money, sparking an investigation that has now reached the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division.
If the servicemen are charged and found guilty, they could face a range of possible punishments, including administrative action — such as a letter of reprimand — a fine, having their rank reduced or being imprisoned, he said.
The official said it wasn't clear if the process would be handled administratively or go to a full court martial process, and he stressed that it was too soon to say whether any of those under investigation would ultimately be charged.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division, which is responsible for investigating serious crimes by American troops, is also looking into another reported incident in which some American servicemen are accused of trying to mail Iraqi weapons out of the region in violation of customs regulations and legal military guidelines, the official said.
The official said he had no further details on the incident, such as when it occurred or which servicemen were involved.
The guidelines cited by the official say all such Iraqi military items are considered property of the U.S. government, and that any attempt to take it is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
While such items are considered to belong to the U.S. government for now, the cash and other stolen war trophies and souvenirs that have begun showing up at U.S. and European airports belong to the Iraqi people, the official said.
At least 15 paintings, gold-plated firearms, ornamental knives, Iraqi government bonds and other items have been seized at airports in Washington, Boston and London in the last week, according to the bureaus of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
So far, federal charges have been filed against one news media member.
But U.S. officials have said more charges could be brought and more seizures of stolen items are expected in what is being dubbed "Operation Iraqi Heritage."
The $600 million stash from which the soldiers allegedly stole was among a reported $772 million in American money recovered so far in Iraq.
Investigators are trying to learn how so much cash got into a country under strict sanctions for nearly 13 years.
CBS News' Mark Knoller reports that the U.S. Secret Service, which handles counterfeiting investigations, has now examined "a small sampling" of the virtual mountain of pristine $100 bills and says it appears to be genuine.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the find in Baghdad totaled $656 million, and said another cache uncovered at a kennel held $112 million. Dollars found at a bank last week were estimated at $4 million.
Central Command would not confirm any figures other than the major find of more than $600 million in Baghdad.
The Bush administration wants any genuine, U.S. currency found in Iraq to be used to help the people of the country, Treasury Department officials said.
If the bills are genuine, experts say there are plenty of ways they could have made their way into Iraq, including oil and cash smuggling schemes, illegal trade deals, sham businesses and a web of middlemen located outside the country to conceal the true destination of the funds.
But tracing the movement of cash is difficult. A recent report by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve found that of the $620 billion of U.S. currency in circulation in late 2002, around 55 percent was circulating outside the United States.
Serial numbers on U.S. currency are sometimes useful, but their help is limited, experts said. Information exists to track bills' movements from the Federal Reserve to their first destination, but not beyond that, a Treasury official explained.