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Security forces receive little for what they give

August 07, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Each morning as he leaves for work, Jawad Khatham reminds his family that he might not come home alive.

"I tell them, 'Be careful, try to save money just in case something happens,' " the 27-year-old police officer said.

He has a verse from the Koran in his wallet for luck, a laminated, pocket-size sheet he was carrying when a car bombing seriously injured him in September as he patrolled the capital. The blast tore off a piece of his skull, portions of his ears and skin from his forearms and right shoulder.

"I expected it to happen to me -- that there would be an explosion, or I would be shot," he said.

Unlike U.S. counterparts, Iraqi police officers and soldiers generally don't have medical or life insurance. And though Iraqi leaders have promised to take care of those injured and disabled in the line of duty, along with the families of those who are killed, some relatives say they struggle to get benefits.

The families are not even guaranteed slain officers' pensions because a pension bill is tied up in parliament. Instead, they must apply every six months to receive the officers' monthly salaries, a system commanders concede is rife with corruption.

Casualties among Iraqi forces have been increasing since a new Baghdad security initiative was launched. Since Feb. 1, 1,312 Iraqi police officers and soldiers have been killed, according to, a website that tracks deaths in Iraq. In July, 224 were killed, compared with 221 in June and 174 in May, according to figures from the Iraqi interior and defense ministries. In Baghdad alone, 159 were killed in July, compared with 81 in February.

Police recruits are common targets. On July 8, insurgents bombed a bus carrying 45 police recruits on the road from the western city of Fallouja to Baghdad, killing 18 and injuring the rest. In June, insurgents bombed a police recruitment center in Fallouja, killing at least 20.

Khatham spent two months recovering at Baghdad's Kindi Hospital after the bombing last fall, which killed seven fellow officers. Although police officials say the injured and disabled are cared for at state-run hospitals, or those the Iraqi government has agreements with overseas, Khatham said he had to pay for skin-graft operations, other treatment and medication, at a cost of about $1,600.

He still needs surgery to rebuild his ears, but he can't afford a procedure that probably would be performed in a foreign hospital.

"The government will not help me," said Khatham, who lives in Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in the capital.

Khatham earned about $375 a month before the attack. Had he claimed disability, he would have received about $200 a month, not enough to support his wife and 6-month-old daughter. So he returned to work three weeks ago.

All the officers killed in the explosion were married, and all but one had children, Khatham said. The pension bill caught up in parliament would grant families of police officers and soldiers killed in action at least $330 a month, based on years of service.

The families of Iraqi soldiers killed in action receive $1,000 to $10,000 for funeral expenses, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said. Families of slain police officers receive $3,300, plus $830 for funeral expenses, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said. Police officers disabled or injured on the job receive a onetime payment of about $415, Khalaf said.

But Khalaf said corrupt police commanders have prevented death benefits and disability payments from reaching some families. When such cases are discovered, the commanders are disciplined, he said.

"This is the money of orphans, and even the Koran has said those who take the money of orphans are putting fire in their stomach," Khalaf said. "Anybody could be killed -- this could happen to our own families."

Askari said the application process for death benefits is too complicated for many families to understand, and benefits may not be reaching them.

"Some reasons are our fault, some are the families'," he said.

Iraqi army Chief Sgt. Majid Hameed, 41, was killed July 6 by a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul. Since then, his brother, Chief Sgt. Sadiq Hameed, has struggled to provide for the dead man's family. Although his widow and three children received about $800 for funeral expenses, it wasn't enough, Hameed said. So the family of four moved in with Hameed. The widow is temporarily receiving her husband's monthly salary of about $500 and has applied to receive his pension.

In March, police officer Muhanad Abdul Hussein, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in the town of Hillah.

His father received $200 in funeral assistance, plus his son's monthly salary of about $370 on a temporary basis, and has applied to receive his pension if parliament approves the bill.

"We are still working on the retirement paperwork, but nothing is easy, you know," said Hussein's brother, Muwaiad Hussein. "And even if we finish these papers, we don't know what the government will do with them."

Times staff writers Said Rifai and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad, and special correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah, contributed to this report.

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