No more 'Saddams': Iraqis get new currency

Saad al-Duremi strides past the hulking US Abrams tank outside Baghdad Bank's headquarters, undergoes a cursory security check, and hefts his two-pound bag of dinars onto the counter.

The teller flips through some of the bundles, scanning past the pictures of Saddam Hussein for signs of all-too-common for- geries, and begins to feed the roughly 2,400 of the 250-dinar notes into a counting machine.

A few minutes later, she hands Mr. Duremi 22 new 25,000-dinar notes, and five new 10,000 dinar notes, a tidy handful with the equivalent spending power of the old but the new advantage of folding easily into his front pocket. The value in dollars? About $300.

"It's fantastic,'' says Duremi, an economics student at a nearby university. "We've not only gotten rid of that maniac Saddam's picture, but it's like real money now. I can use a wallet again."

Nearly six months after the US-led coalition in Iraq tore down every mural, statue, and public portrait of the country's former dictator, the most ubiquitous reminder of Mr. Hussein is finally being taken out of circulation.

Wednesday, the coalition began replacing the devalued 250 dinar note and the smiling likeness of Mr. Hussein in every Iraqi's pocket with a new version of the currency that shows famous Iraqi moments, natural scenes, and the famed 10th-century Iraqi physicist and mathematician Hazan Ibn al-Haithem.

The currency change is one of the most visible coalition successes, introduced as Baghdad grapples with the aftermath of two suicide bombs this week.

The Saddam dinars, as they're known here, are a record of Iraq's economic decline in the 1990s, a painful decade that ended with his removal earlier this year. They were first issued in 1990, after the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq, and Hussein engaged in a frenzy of political symbolism, as well as brutal purges of his opponents to shore up his regime.

With the country's once- torrential oil revenue reduced to a trickle and private business collapsing, Hussein's regime printed money to finance domestic government spending, with rampant inflation the predictable result.

One dinar, worth nearly $3 at times in the 1980s, became virtually worthless, the exchange rate plunging to about 2,000 to the dollar. Salaries of doctors, soldiers, and teachers fell in real terms to a few dollars a month.

And as both sanctions and Hussein's policies - which favored military spending and political patronage - squeezed ever harder, the currency reflected that reality.

From the large Saddam dinars printed abroad in 1990, complete with florid scrollwork and watermarks to prevent forgery, Iraq shifted in 1994 to a cheaper domestically printed version.

"I hate the stuff,'' says Omar Abbas Aziz, a Baghdad Bank manager. He fingers one of the old lightweight bills, then begins flicking at Hussein's picture with his pointer finger. "This guy, I hated him, too." The new currency, by contrast "is beautiful. It feels valuable."

Behind him at Baghdad Bank, tight bricks of the old notes are stacking up around the tellers, and Omar says they'll be taken to a collection point, where they'll be checked once more and consigned to the furnace. "I'm glad it's going,'' says Duremi, the student. "Do you know how annoying it is to check every single bill when you get change to make sure it's not fake?"

More was at stake with the currency change than aesthetics, fraud prevention, or political symbolism. In addition to the ease with which the Saddam dinars could be counterfeited, they had also become a symbol of national disunity.

After Iraq was defeated in the Gulf War, Kurds carved out an autonomous region in the north of the country and managed their own currency system, using the country's last generation of dinars from the 1980s.

Better management of the currency and a generally stronger economy in the north helped those notes preserve their value, and today they're worth about 150 of the Saddam dinars.

The coalition is hoping to restore some cohesion to the country with the reintegration of the two currencies. Iraqis can exchange each Saddam dinar for one new dinar, while each dinar from the Kurdish north can be exchanged for 150 of the new dinars. Iraqis will have three months to convert their existing currency.

Of course, not every reminder of regime and its troubles has been removed. Take the portrait of Ibn al-Haithem on the 10,000-dinar note. A research institute that UN weapons inspectors suspected of conducting chemical and biological weapons research in the 1990s was named after the ancient scientist.

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