March 7, 2004


When U.S. troops kill Iraqi civilians, the rules on compensation leave many families bitter


Staff Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The bullet from a U.S. soldier prowling for guerrillas struck Mohammad al-Kubaisi, a gangly 12-year-old, as the boy was carrying a mattress to the roof so he could sleep outdoors on a sweltering night last June.

Mohammad was still alive when soldiers stormed the house minutes later and saw him gasping in his mother's arms, blood pouring from his chest. But because of a curfew, troops blocked neighbors who tried to drive him to the hospital. The boy died in the car on the way back home.

A military official came to the family's house in southern Baghdad to apologize, calling the death a tragic accident. But relatives said that when they sought financial compensation for Mohammad's death, they were rejected.

Once welcomed

"When the Americans first came, Mohammad and my other children watched them with joy in their eyes," said the boy's mother, Wafa Abdul Latif, as she showed a visitor the spot where her son died. "Now," she continued, eyes narrowing to slits, "we hate them."

Thousands of Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed or injured by U.S. troops since the war began nearly a year ago, but at least half of the victims' families haven't received restitution, human rights workers say.

As casualties mount, they warn, so does Iraqi anger, opening the door for more violence against occupying forces.

"Americans are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis," said Marla Ruzicka, founder of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Baghdad-based group that helps Iraqis file damage claims with the military.

"Iraqis are being told about the need for transparency and respect for human rights, yet they don't always believe the Americans are practicing this."

Gauging the number of Iraqi civilian casualties since the war began is difficult because the U.S.-led occupation force does not count them and Iraq's government lacks the capacity to do so. Using media reports and eyewitness accounts, the London-based research group Iraq Body Count estimates Iraqi civilian deaths at 10,000.

Claims and allegations

The U.S. Foreign Claims Act entitles Iraqis to financial compensation when U.S. forces kill or injure civilians, or damage their property, provided the incident occurred during "non-combat related activities" in which soldiers acted "negligently or wrongfully." Thus families of those killed in cross fire or, like Mohammad, in a counterinsurgency raid, are ineligible for compensation.

The U.S. military has doled out $2.2 million in compensation to Iraqis under that law since Washington formally declared major combat operations ended on May 1. But of the 11,300 claims processed so far, it has denied compensation in 5,700 cases, just more than half. Another 3,700 claims are outstanding.

Military officials say they are doing all they can to provide restitution. "The standard of proof is extremely low. Most of these cases wouldn't see the light of day in the United States, but if I have even an inkling that the person is telling me the truth, it's a go" for compensation, said Capt. Jonathan Tracy, a military lawyer who hears claims here.

Complainants frequently appear with no documentation and only vague descriptions of accidents or shootings, Tracy said.

Most claims are automatically rejected if they are for incidents arising before May 1. That is because virtually all civilian deaths during war are considered combat-related or collateral damage.

Thus, the family of Husham Sami was turned away after U.S. Marines allegedly shot him dead April 6 as he stood unarmed in his doorway in the village of Al Wihda Arabia, just south of Baghdad.

Relatives said a Marine on a counterterrorism sweep shot Sami, 30, a farmer who supported 11 relatives, at point-blank range in the head after demanding to see his identification. They said Sami's last act was to show the Marine an ID card that was bright red, indicating that he had deserted the army of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the unit's Kuwaiti translator didn't understand what the card was.

"The night before, my son was dancing the Dabka saying, 'The Americans will liberate us from the nightmare of Saddam Hussein,'" said Sami's mother, Fawzia Kalaf. As she spoke, her dead son's four children stared at an American interviewer with questioning eyes.

"My brother was no terrorist or Iraqi soldier," insisted Sami's brother, Kamel Sami, 42. "The Americans' hands are stained with the blood of innocent people."

Flaws in the system

Weaknesses in the Foreign Claims Act may encourage soldiers to be cavalier about shooting civilians or destroying property, human rights groups say.

Among their concerns: investigations are classified, the military isn't required to inspect the scene of an incident or collect evidence, and only the occupying forces, rather than Iraqi courts, have jurisdiction. Appeals generally go to the same military lawyer who originally heard the case.

"The lack of timely and thorough investigations into many questionable incidents has created an atmosphere of impunity, in which many soldiers feel they can pull the trigger without coming under review," concluded a report last fall by Human Rights Watch.

In recent months, U.S. forces have tried to stem civilian casualties by marking checkpoints more clearly, giving troops more training and taking Iraqi police on more raids.

In cases that predate the war's U.S.-declared end on May 1, the military also has begun awarding "sympathy payments" that "aim to build friendly relations" with Iraqis even though they do not acknowledge wrongdoing, Tracy said.

Sympathy payments are capped at $2,500 for a death and $1,000 for an injury.

"We do the best we can," Tracy said. "People aren't 100-percent satisfied, but they do feel better."

Even for those who get compensation, the process can be trying. Some claim centers have no waiting rooms, requiring Iraqis to stand or squat outside under the hot sun in military areas.

One team of Iraqi and foreign human rights workers visiting a claim center last fall reported that Iraqis were gathered in sight of passing military vehicles bearing slogans such as "Death From Above" and "Kill Them All."

On a recent morning at a compensation court in the former Baghdad convention center, some Iraqis complained that the military lost their files, delayed their appointments numerous times or gave them awards they considered paltry.

'Strange form of justice'

During a U.S. counterinsurgency raid in Baghdad in January, "soldiers came into my company, broke the doors and furniture, fired bullets everywhere and set off smoke bombs that broke the glass," said Zena Jacoub, 29, the manager of a large Baghdad-based engineering firm. "They didn't find any terrorists, but they destroyed everything."

The unit's commanders had her fill out forms and promised to set up a claims appointment, but did so only after repeated calls, Jacoub said. When she arrived, she found the claims office closed.

The next day, a military lawyer told her he had never received the forms she had submitted and gave her fresh ones.

"I'm sorry to say it, but the Americans are behaving like idiots," Jacoub fumed.

That same morning, Kamel Sami, the brother of the farmer shot in the head, was making a second claim - this time for compensation for his 1989 Opel sedan, which U.S. soldiers damaged last month while driving the wrong way down a Baghdad street in a Humvee.

Kamel Sami's spirits were considerably improved after Tracy awarded him $2,500 - the full amount of a mechanic's repair estimate.

Still, he said, the pleasure was bittersweet.

"The Americans seem to place more value on my car than on my brother's life," he said. "It is a strange form of justice."