Robbery tests Iraq

Quick trial leaves questions about ties to Shiite elite

The New York TimesSeptember 3, 2009 

— The gang of robbers did not have to worry about the police because, in that neighborhood, they were the police, many of them bodyguards for one of the nation's most powerful men, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Their plan was brutally simple and brazenly stupid: They tied up eight guards -- some of whom they knew -- at the Zuwiya branch of the Rafidan bank in Baghdad and executed them point-blank with silenced guns. Then they made off with at least two carloads of cash worth $4.3 million.

But the robbers forgot about the security cameras.

And they forgot about sunrise, which came before they finished July 28, so when they left it was light enough for people in the area to see them, their uniforms and their getaway cars.

Four will be hanged

On Wednesday, after a short trial, a court in Baghdad sentenced four people to death for the crime. But the case is far from over, resonating loudly for what it says about high-level corruption and the uneven application of law in Iraq.

In this case, the henchmen will be hanged. But the ringleaders, with well-known ties to the Shiite political elite, have escaped.

Even so, the Zuwiya robbery also demonstrated in some rickety way that Iraq's young institutions, the judiciary, the news media and its increasingly democratic politics, make it difficult for even the country's most powerful people to snap their fingers and make an embarrassing case go away.

As details emerged, the vice president and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, his party and the largest Shiite grouping, would suffer a public relations body blow, one that may well affect Abdul Mahdi's ambitions to become the next prime minister in elections in January.

"I am sure Adel Abdul Mahdi was not involved," said Ahmad Abdulhussein, a journalist threatened for an article he wrote about the case. "But the Iraqi people have to think, do they want a leader who has bodyguards who rob banks and kill?"

And, contrary to the state of affairs under Saddam Hussein, there was an open trial free for anyone to criticize -- and they did -- even if death sentences were handed down in only 2-1/2 days.

"There has never been a case that happened this fast," said Ghalib al-Rubaie, one of the lawyers for the accused.

The cold-blooded brutality of the crime, executing the helpless guards, made it a hard case to ignore.

Three days after the robbery, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani announced that authorities had identified the criminals and recovered the money. He pointedly said that "influential parties" were involved in the crime.

Accusations fly

The implication was obvious: that whoever did it had to be part of the security services, possibly those tied to Abdul Mahdi's party. The whole area was under the control of a battalion of bodyguards from the Presidential Protection Brigade, assigned to guard Abdul Mahdi, his family and aides. The gang initially hid the money in a nearby house owned by his newspaper, apparently on the theory that no one would dare look there.

Thus was set off an extraordinary scramble of accusation and self-protection, in which a grubby bank robbery intertwined itself into the heights of national and Shiite politics and the power of blood relations in this still highly tribal society.

The sentences came only days after Amnesty International sharply criticized Iraq's judiciary for handing down excessive numbers of death sentences. Amnesty said that more than 1,000 people are now on Iraq's death row, many of them after secretive, swift trials often involving torture.

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