HILLAH, Iraq (UPI) — A routine Iraqi traffic stop has turned up what may be $90 million in gold bars in this town just over 50 miles south of Baghdad.

While the financial haul is major, U.S. Marines helping to get this town back on its feet say something more valuable has come out of the episode: the notion that Iraqis can begin to trust their government.

“It just shows you the character and integrity of the people will come up and surprise you,” said Maj. Martin Casado, the operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment of the Marines, 1st Division, which is headquartered here.

“They will definitely surprise you and make you feel like you are here for a reason, and it’s a good reason.”

An Iraqi police officer stopped an oil tanker truck on the road in Hillah July 27, part of a crack down on black-market oil. There was a problem with the license plates, and the registration didn’t match. The truck was taken to the impound lot.

Three days later, a security director for the governor of Hillah took a call. If he would let the tanker truck go, he would get $15 million Iraqi dinars. The man refused. The caller offered $30 million dinars, about $30,000 U.S. dollars. The man, who earns no more than $500 a month, refused again.

But he got curious.

He went out to the truck and opened the back. Inside, stacked three feet high and 20 feet deep were gleaming gold bars.

“This guy called me. He said, ‘Big, big surprise, you love me now. We have metal, much metal,” laughs Maj. David Holahan, the boisterous chain-smoking executive officer of the battalion. “I told him, ‘You’re an Arab. You know if someone offers you 30 million, its worth 90! You’re a fool to take the bribe!'”

Holahan asked that the man’s identity not be revealed for fear of reprisals.

The Iraqi got five other government workers and six padlocks. Each had a separate key for each lock so none could open the truck without the others. The next day he drove the truck to the American base in an old pistol factory in Hillah and turned over the truck. Holahan took three of the keys, and left the six locks in place. It would be a join U.S-Iraqi project to count the bars.

The Marines are still not sure what the metal is — other bars thought to be gold have turned out to be brass or other metals. But pictures of the bars show gleaming yellow bricks.

“Whatever it is, it’s precious to someone,” Casado said.

A group of Marines and Iraqis attempted to count the bars, but after stacking close to 250 of them with probably 75 percent more to go, they gave up.

“In the back of your head, you wonder what you would do,” said Lt. Stan E. Bednar, 24, of Anchorage, Alaska. But after he involuntarily weighed the difficulty of getting the gold through customs and then fencing it — demonstrating a surprising grasp of the details involved — Bednar shelved any dreams off taking the gold and running.

“Once I decided it was too much trouble, to me it became like lifting 40-pound dumb bells.”

“But there was a lot of fantasy stories out there about what we would do with the money,” he said. “There were a lot of BMWs.”

The gold was under his guard for almost a week.

“I was a multi-millionaire for five days,” he said.

The gold will be tested by metallurgists sometime soon and somehow returned to the Iraqi treasury. No matter what the tests reveal, Holahan wants to tell the Iraqis it is gold anyway.

“They need some hope,” he said.

The discovery has already paid dividends in civic pride. Holahan commented to one government official that he “got Saddam’s gold!” The man answered, “No, we got the Iraqi people’s gold.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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