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U.S. Limits Payments to Kin of Slain Iraqi Civilians

Compensation is possible only in cases of wrongdoing or negligence. Fatal errors and combat-related deaths are excluded.

August 04, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The families of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed or injured by U.S. forces will not receive compensation unless they prove clear-cut negligence or wrongdoing by soldiers, military officials said Sunday.

The policy rules out payments for tragic mistakes, such as the fatal shootings of civilians at military checkpoints, if soldiers believed it was reasonable to fire. And incidents after May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major fighting in Iraq, could still be regarded as combat-related and therefore ineligible for compensation, the officials said.

However, cases involving soldiers who accidentally fire their weapons or traffic accidents involving supply convoys could warrant payments to the victims if negligence is proved.

U.S. military officials said they had settled 1,168 compensation claims totaling $262,263. Most were for property damage, and no payment was more than $15,000. But officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could provide no information about compensation for deaths.

"How much is an injury worth? How much is a life worth? It all depends on the value of a life in Iraq. The value of a life in Iraq is probably a lot less than it would be in the U.S. or Britain," one official said.

Sunday's briefing highlighted inconsistencies in the handling of compensation payments: In the city of Fallouja, where U.S. soldiers killed 18 people and wounded 78 in April, the American military commander in the area has been paying $1,500 for each fatality and $500 for each injury, Associated Press reported.

The commander was apparently using discretionary funds supplied for his operations.

One official at Sunday's briefing said he would investigate and, if necessary, tell the commander to stop making such payments.

In addition, U.S. military officials offered unspecified payments in a case in late March, when 10 of 15 women and children in a van were shot dead at a checkpoint near Karbala in southern Iraq, according to a Washington Post reporter present at the scene.

"You just ... killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!" the newspaper quoted Capt. Ronny Johnson of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division as shouting immediately after the shots were fired.

Under the guidelines revealed Sunday, that incident would not have qualified for compensation because it occurred under what could be construed as combat conditions and took place before May 1, while the war was in full swing.

The conflicting policies have created a sense of injustice in a country where many people already feel aggrieved about the U.S.-led occupation. In Iraq's tribal culture, particularly in rural areas, the payment of "blood money" for deaths is seen as a way to prevent vengeance and vendettas.

At least 5,000 civilians have been killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, according to an independent research group, Iraq Body Count, which consists of British and U.S. academics and researchers.

Last week, at least two civilians were shot dead at a checkpoint during a raid in the hunt for Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighborhood. Many witnesses angrily criticized the U.S. soldiers who were responsible, saying the checkpoint was badly organized and the area was not properly sealed. They also questioned why soldiers shot to kill in a populated area.

One of the military officials speaking Sunday did not comment directly on the Mansour incident except to say, "In general, when a person approaches a checkpoint and is fired on, that is a combat activity."

Five days after the attack, relatives were still struggling to get information from U.S. forces on injured loved ones, whom they said were flown out by a U.S. military helicopter to an unknown location.

One of the dead was the nephew of Nael Salim Abdul Karim, 55, a retired engineer. Karim's sister and a second nephew are missing. Frantic with worry and grief, touring hospitals and morgues, he has not stopped to think of compensation. But he said many bereaved Iraqis would be angry if compensation was not offered in cases such as the Mansour shootings.

"They should have sealed off the whole area. Without doing so, they rushed in and started shooting in a very crowded commercial zone," Karim complained. "I would be very sorry if they did not pay compensation. It is inhuman."

Another relative of a Mansour victim, teacher Jenan Qasira, 55, said the U.S. was morally obliged to pay compensation.

"Compensation won't bring back the man you lost. But it is something moral to show the people," he said. "The Americans should make it a moral principle to show the world they are not against civilians."

The U.S.-based nongovernmental group CIVIC, or Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, says it is pressing for a consistent and just U.S. policy on compensating civilian victims, but spokeswoman Marla Ruzicka says the Bush administration appears to be wary of setting precedents.

She said that although military leaders insisted there were few casualties in the war, they were not doing their own survey. "They need to go out and do the fieldwork, and they need to tell people they're sorry," she said.

Ruzicka said compensation "has to be consistent, otherwise you get jealousies. You have to show people that you care about loss of Iraqi life. The No. 1 way you do that is to recompense the deaths, and that's not happening."

Military officials said it was up to claimants to gather evidence to prove their cases, which would be assessed by a military official. Claimants would be informed of the result by mail.

Congress passed legislation in April providing emergency relief to Iraq and requiring the government to provide assistance to civilians who suffered losses. But that aid is in the form of general funds, not personal compensation payments.

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