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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 May, 2003, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
US troops crack Iraqi bank safes
Bombed building in Kirkuk
Kirkuk suffered from heavy fighting and looting

American soldiers in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk have broken into the vaults of a fire-gutted bank to release money to pay local oil workers.

Employees of the North Oil company collected overdue wages after US army engineers used pneumatic drills to penetrate the vaults - which were damaged when the bank was looted last month.

Heavily-armed American troops provided security, directing thousands of workers towards a charred brick building where cashiers dished out money.

Oil company officials said Thursday's wage distribution was an important step towards reviving the local economy.

Kirkuk is the centre of northern Iraq's oil industry.

Prices in the shops have risen because of the looting and lack of stability, so this money won't go far
Raisan Zubaidi
computer worker

Its main bank was ransacked when Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed last month.

Looters burned the building after failing to crack the safes.

"I'm just happy the looters didn't get the money," US Sergeant Dan Gone told Reuters news agency.

"The workers here haven't been paid for two months," he added.

Hungry mouths

Sensitive about potential criticism of the US military's role in Iraq, officers stressed the money was handled by bank workers only.

Headscarved women behind barred windows handed out banknotes to the oil workers.

Oil field burns near Kirkuk
Kirkuk's giant oil fields were damaged during the war

But there was little sign of satisfaction on the faces of those taking home wages to hungry families, Reuters reports.

"This is not enough to live on," technician Emad Nazim Abdullah said as he counted out a salary of $50.

"I have 10 people to feed, house and clothe and this will only last a week."

Computer worker Raisan Zubaidi added: "Prices in the shops have risen because of the looting and lack of stability, so this money won't go far."

But North Oil Company officials saw the payment of wages as an opportunity to restore economic activity in Kirkuk.

"This is an important day for the company and the local economy," said Gago Toma, head of accounts at the company.

"If people have money they will start spending in the shops again. That has got to be a good thing."




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