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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: CABINET SHAKE-UP PLAN: A CASH
CAMPAIGN

Marines' arsenal includes money

U.S. hopes paying Iraqis for losses will aid the fight against insurgents.

December 20, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAQLAWIYA, IRAQ — An imam complained about a hole in the roof of a mosque punched by a Marine mortar round that malfunctioned.

A teacher who raises poultry requested compensation for 500 chickens apparently scared to death by mortar fire. And a woman accused Marines of stealing jewelry and watches during a search of her home.

Half a dozen Marine officers, including a lawyer, battalion and company commanders and an Arabic-speaking battalion executive officer, listened to the requests and several more.

If it's Tuesday at the Iraqi police station in this farming community near Fallouja, it's claims day, when Iraqis can make complaints against Marines and seek payment.

Marines have long given out such cash payments to Iraqis, an effort that dates to just after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

But amid the continuing insurgency in Al Anbar province, the payments have taken on a purpose beyond compensation for losses: They are also aimed at winning over Iraqis in hopes they will provide information about insurgents.

It is a slow process that requires hours of listening to possibly divine a nugget of information.

The insurgents have targeted the police headquarters on claims days in an apparent effort to scare away residents. On this day, two mortar rounds landed nearby as the session was about to begin.

Many of the claims are for farm animals run over by Marine vehicles or caught in crossfire between Marines and insurgents.

Maj. Joel Garrett, a lawyer with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment, has authority to settle claims of up to $15,000. He has distributed about $120,000 in the last five-plus months, and has learned that a dead cow is an expensive thing.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2005, the U.S. paid out more than $20 million to settle claims with Iraqis, with more than half distributed in Al Anbar. No figure has been released for the latest fiscal year.

The Americans told the woman who made an allegation of theft that the Marines who searched her home were later searched themselves. Her house drew attention, she was told, because it was believed that insurgents lived next door and a gun position was located on her roof.

The Marines said the surprise search of the troops found nothing. She was adamant.

"You guys took it from my house," she said through an interpreter hired by the Marines. "Why did you people come to my house? Only children live there, no men."

Asked about the allegation that insurgents were living next door, she denied any knowledge of them. She appeared glum as she left.

The imam received a more cordial reception.

He is one of the few authority figures left in the area. The tribal sheik fled to Jordan after insurgents struck his home with mortar rounds. The police chief left; other police officers have been killed.

The imam received the equivalent of about $2,500 in Iraqi dinars to have the roof patched. Smiling, he left, but only after Marines appealed to him for help in finding insurgents who were killing troops and Saqlawiya residents.

"You've had one mortar round hit your house; I have had many [roadside] bombs hit my Marines, and many mortar rounds hit my home," said Capt. Mark Broekhuizen, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion's Golf Company.

The company has lost five Marines and an interpreter to the violence.

The imam said there were no insurgents among the more than 1,000 men who attended his mosque, although Marines thought otherwise.

Marines have claim cards to give Iraqis whenever the troops realize they have caused damage. Forgeries are common.

Several claims were referred for further investigation, including the request for $2,000 for the chickens. Broekhuizen promised to visit the chicken farm.

Most of those seeking claims asked that their pictures not be taken and their names not be published, lest they be targeted by insurgents. Each was given a short lecture by the Marines noting that the Al Qaeda terrorist network did not pay claims when it destroyed property.

"That's the difference between them and us," Broekhuizen told the chicken rancher.

*

tony.perry@latimes.com

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