Waiting for compensation on Baghdad's Street No. 2

Iraqis whose homes were damaged by war want proof of US goodwill in dollars and cents.

For the Iraqis of Street No. 2 in Baghdad, there is just one standard by which they measure the success of the American occupation: compensation.

They wonder when the US military will repay them for their homes, damaged by a military miscalculation shortly after the capital fell to American troops.

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is beginning to pay hundreds of claims in northern Iraq that resulted from an explosion of ordnance that damaged homes.

Residents on Street No. 2 say they deserve the same consideration, but have seen more promises than action. Several people were turned away Monday by US military claims officers who - after looking at a map - directed them to a more distant military base to file their claims.

One family says they are "happy" with the US presence in Iraq, and see in it "hope for the future of our children." But that outlook is fading fast, as the dust thickens on their house, which was wrecked when US forces blew up an Iraqi arms cache in the street. The commander of a US Bradley fighting vehicle was killed in the April 10 incident. Three houses were destroyed, affecting about 20 residents, and windows were shattered up to six blocks away.

"My father raised us to be patient, and we know this won't be fast, but more delay we cannot stand," says Abdulkarim al-Fardousi, owner of an advertising firm. His family is jammed into the back two rooms of his house - the only ones still habitable.

US military and coalition authorities say that their liability for damage in war is limited, and so compensation for families like the Fardousis would more likely come from the $2.4 billion earmarked by Congress in April for Iraq's reconstruction - which includes assistance for families of innocent Iraqi civilians who suffer losses as a result of military operations - or from the US Foreign Claims Act.

Iraqis say they have repeatedly taken their case to civilian and military headquarters.

CPA officials on Saturday announced that they had paid 228 claims of some 1,100 submitted over the ordnance explosion in the north - most of them for broken windows or similar damage. About 150 more claims are due to be paid Wednesday. CPA officials said they had received just 85 claims from all the rest of Iraq.

The CPA's "primary position remains that we are not liable for damage from armed conflict," says a senior CPA official. Payouts will "not be on an order of millions or billions of dollars."

"Combat exclusion is broadly defined," says Col. Marc Warren, staff judge advocate for the Coalition Joint Task Force 7 and the US Army's 5th Corps, adding that there are other compensation mechanisms.

The incident with the Bradley "would be a classic combat exclusion," says Scott Castle, general counsel for the CPA. But he notes that there are "larger, separate appropriations" meant to "fill the gap of the harsh result of the combat exclusion." US battalion and brigade commanders also have a discretionary fund - $100,000 cash each for the latter - that they can use to have fast impact in certain instances.

Residents here hope they will soon be among the lucky few, but some say even cash will not alone be enough to convince them that the US is serious about mending fences.

Nour Ali, a biology student at Baghdad University, says the need for compensation concerns more than the unlivable blackened shell that was her home. "What about my memories? My toys, my life?" Ms. Ali says. "Even if they rebuild [the house], that is financial. But psychologically, who will compensate for that?"

In the days after the event, residents and US officers, interviewed by the Monitor, described how three Bradleys came across Iraqi trucks in the neighborhood, misjudged the amount of munitions in them, and blasted them with high explosive rounds.

American officers said they could see the blast from more than a mile away. They told the Monitor at the time that "it was a very unfortunate mistake ... that cost [Bradley commander Staff Sgt. Terry Hemingway] his life."

Officers suggested then that the civilians would get some kind of payout.

Maj. David Wishart, a director of civil affairs with the US Army's 1st Armored Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said his unit is receiving a lot of claims.

"The word's getting out on the street; they keep showing up," says Major Wishart, who ran the US military claims office in Bosnia from 1997. Payouts then often took more than two years.

"Our government is here doing everything possible to help these people," he says. "It takes time to build this up, but our hearts are in it. So many people tell me: 'Only Allah and you can help me.'"

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