U.S. Cut Cash to Iraq on Iran, ISIS Fears Fed and Treasury officials were concerned that dollars were ending up at sanctioned Iranian banks and possibly being funneled to Islamic State militants

Nov. 3, 2015 12:00 a.m. ET

The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department temporarily shut off the flow of billions of dollars to Iraq’s central bank this summer as concerns mounted that the currency was ending up at Iranian banks and possibly being funneled to Islamic State militants, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and other people familiar with the matter.

The previously unreported move to stop the cash shipments pushed the Iraqi financial system to the brink of crisis and marked a climactic moment in efforts to avert the flow of dollars to U.S. ​ foes.

The situation sheds light on an important facet of the long-running U.S. battle against terror: Just as military officials worry about U.S. weapons getting to enemies, finance officials are on a global hunt to keep dollars from getting into the hands of adversaries who could use it to finance their activities.

After Iraqi officials this summer agreed to institute tighter controls on the distribution of U.S. dollars by Iraq’s central bank, the dollars are flowing again and with better oversight, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and people familiar with the matter.
Still, the spread of Islamic State set off alarms among U.S. officials about the potential for the currency shipments to be exploited by terrorists. The Sunni extremist group controls about a third of the war-torn country, including the second-largest city, Mosul, and is already well-funded from tax collections, oil sales and a range of other activities.

Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraqi authorities have taken a number of measures to crack down on illicit money flows to Islamic State, but that it is an uphill struggle to keep hard currency within the country because of corruption and the cash-based economy.

The problem dates to last December when Fed and Treasury officials called a secret meeting in an Istanbul hotel conference room with Iraqi officials. The Americans were alarmed by the rising volume of dollars being shipped into Iraq and the lack of clarity into where the cash was ending up, the people said.

Since the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein and helped establish the Central Bank of Iraq in 2004, the U.S. dollar has largely become the country’s chief currency because so much of the economy runs on cash. When Iraq needs more paper currency, the money is drawn from the country’s account at the Fed, funded largely by oil reserves, and flown to Baghdad.

The amounts have been soaring. In 2014, annual U.S. dollar cash flow from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Iraq was $13.66 billion, more than triple the $3.85 billion in 2012, according to data compiled by Iraq’s parliament and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

That spike doesn’t mesh with the sluggish Iraqi economy of late, and as a result U.S. officials suspected the dollars were being hoarded rather than circulated.

It was hard to know for sure. Until recently, New York Fed officials who supervised the money flows received only spotty monthly reports in Arabic and English in a mix of Excel spreadsheets, unsearchable digital documents and some hard-copy reports, including handwritten notes, according to U.S. officials and people involved in the process.

At the Istanbul meeting, U.S. officials insisted on tighter controls and information-sharing regarding how the dollars are distributed to financial firms in Iraq, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Iraqi central-bank officials started sharing more information in January.

The system for distributing dollars within Iraq works like this: Foreign central banks hold dollars and can call on the Fed for currency distribution. The new $100 notes are flown to Baghdad after leaving a Fed facility in East Rutherford, N.J. In Baghdad, the bills are moved to the Iraqi central bank, where they are sold in daily auctions in which Iraqi financial firms request dollars that they pay for largely using dinars, the country’s currency.

Early on, U.S. concerns centered on roughly 2,000 financial firms called exchange houses, which are active participants in these auctions.

U.S. officials believe several of these Iraqi firms have ties to Islamic State and have deep concerns the exchange houses are being used as conduits of dollars to the group, said a U.S. official and another person familiar with the matter. While the U.S. inevitably loses control at some point over the dollars it sends abroad, the Fed is barred from sending cash to entities it knows will distribute it to U.S. enemies.

“The Federal Reserve seeks to accommodate other countries’ need to have access to their dollar deposits in the form of U.S. banknotes for legitimate purposes,” a Fed spokeswoman said. “A number of central banks around the world, including the Central Bank of Iraq, maintain accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and at times withdraw currency from their accounts. In providing this service, the Reserve Bank works ‎closely with the Treasury Department to ensure central banks comply with laws prohibiting transactions with sanctioned foreign regimes, terrorists, and international narcotics traffickers. In response to larger-than-usual currency requests and to the evolving security situation, the Reserve Bank increased its monitoring and controls of currency shipments to Iraq. Currency shipments were suspended for a time this year as the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve worked with the Central Bank of Iraq to strengthen the controls it had in place.”
Some Iraqi officials had similar concerns at the time, and also said corruption and graft have been a problem for years and question why U.S. officials only recently considered the currency issue an urgent one to be addressed. U.S. officials said the situation in Iraq has evolved over the past few years, and they have given it more attention as dollar demand increased.
Around June, Iraqi officials working under the enhanced information-sharing agreement reported to their U.S. counterparts that three sanctioned Iranian banks—Islamic Regional Cooperation Bank, Bank Melli and Parsian Bank—had obtained at least millions of dollars through the auction. Like other Iranian banks, those were operating under international sanctions, and it was illegal for the Fed to knowingly ship dollars to them.

U.S. officials around that time had concerns that Islamic State had gained access to dollars through the auctions, U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter said. The Iraqi officials believe the money has definitely gone to Islamic State through these auctions.

Exchange houses in the northern, Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk—outside of Islamic State control but close to extremist front lines—are among the most active in allowing dollar flows into Islamic State-controlled territory and to Islamic State militants, Iraqi officials said. In addition, Islamic State in 2014 stole about $100 million from a Central Bank of Iraq-run vault in Mosul, said a person familiar with the theft.

Based on the new information, U.S. officials sent a written demand around July to Iraqi officials that the Iranian banks be cut off and separately conveyed to Iraqi officials that the Fed wouldn’t approve cash requests until the overall situation improved.
The decision was delivered just as Iraq’s central bank was running out of cash. Many Iraqis panicked after large withdrawal requests were denied, and the exchange rate fluctuated much more than usual.

Iraq’s central-bank governor didn’t reply to requests for comment.

In July, several U.S. officials, including Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, flew to Baghdad to discuss potential solutions. At a meeting in the U.S. Embassy dining room, Iraqi officials including Iraqi central bank governor Ali Allaq agreed to turn over reams of data to the Fed, which also shares it with U.S. intelligence agencies. They later hired U.S. accounting firm Ernst & Young to monitor the auctions.

On Aug. 6, just days before Iraq’s central bank said it would run out of dollars, the Fed and the New York Fed sent nearly $500 million. It has sent several more in the weeks since then.

“From a counterterrorism perspective, it is not in our interest for there to be an economic crisis in Iraq derived from a lack of U.S. dollars,” Mr. Glaser said in an interview.

The issue isn’t fully resolved. On Oct. 2, the Treasury hosted a classified meeting in Washington focused on Iraq exchange houses that could have connections to Islamic State, according to people familiar with the meeting.

A couple of those exchange houses are owned by politically connected Iraqis, and U.S. officials discussed how best to persuade other Iraqi officials to terminate those relationships, one of these people said ..