BAGHDAD — Anwar Kadhum, her husband, and four children were driving past an unmarked American checkpoint one August evening when soldiers without warning opened fire. "Don't shoot. We are family," Anwar recalls her husband yelling.
Twenty-eight bullets riddled the car, instantly killing Anwar's 20-year old son and her 18-year old daughter. Her husband and 8-year old daughter died an hour later in a local hospital.
US military officials gave Anwar $11,000 in "sympathy pay".
So far, the US military has paid out $2.2 million to Iraqi civilians in response to a flood of claims of wrongful or negligent injuries or death at the hands of US forces. In total, the military has received 15,000 claims, 5,600 of which it has accepted.
In distributing such payments, the military says they are not accepting liability or responsibility, and in fact no soldier has ever faced charges for illegally killing an Iraqi civilian. In some cases, victims must waive their right to take further legal action in order to receive the money.
Iraqis can receive payments under a US law called the Foreign Claims Act, which states that the military may pay claims for wrongful or negligent acts of soldiers in noncombat situations in foreign countries. The US Congress has appropriated funds for this 1982 statute.
However, it is more common for payments to be made under a category called "sympathy pay." Under this, victims of "combat-related" incidents in which the soldiers were deemed fully justified in acting can receive a maximum "sympathy pay" of $2,500. Monies come from a commander's discretionary funds, supplied by seized Iraqi assets.
"There's nothing out there that legally forces us to pay them," says US Capt. Jonathan Tracy, a lawyer who handles claims. "It's gratuitous. The point behind the policy is to build friendly relations."
Since no group tracks the number of Iraqis killed in this war, it's fallen to a handful of advocacy groups to present many of the initial cases.
Marla Ruzicka, head of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, has been assisting 18-year-old Bedour, whose house was mistakenly bombed during the war. Bedour lost 14 family members, including her mother, cousins, and uncles. Her hands and legs are scarred with burns. She can barely move her fingers.
Even with Ruzicka's group assisting her gather death certificates, witness statements, and military verification, Bedour was unable to receive medical assistance from the U.S. On Wednesday, almost a year after her injury, Ruzicka's group paid for Bedour's uncle to transport her to Baghdad for free surgery at the Italian Red Cross. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Bedour's medical assistance came from the US government.]
"It's frustrating," says Ruzicka. "Bedour gets help because we were there with her. What about some kid in a village that we don't know about?"
Last week, Ruzicka submitted Bedour's case for a sympathy pay. The most she'll receive is $2,500. Nonetheless, Ruzicka understands the bind Bedour's situation puts the military in.
"If everyone who was hurt in the war gets a payment, it's going to be a huge mess," she says. As word spreads, more victims are coming forward independently.
The Iraqi assistance center, in the headquarters of the US-led government in Baghdad, is one of 31 locations in Iraq that hears claims. Outside, dozens of families clutching police reports and hospital records wait for hours. Hamza Abid, a student at Baghdad University, says he was driving to Karrahda Street to go clothes shopping on Wednesday when a Humvee carrying US soldiers sideswiped his car. The soldiers were laughing at him, and he says he believes they hit him intentionally.
"If the American soldier had said, 'I'm sorry,' I wouldn't be here asking for money. It's not a matter of compensation. It's pride. I want an apology," Abid said.
Behind him, Majeed Kaaf Hamada, a farmer, said his house was destroyed by a US missile in April. He has brought a typed list of lost items: one sewing machine, nine sleeping beds, 10 women's dresses, one teapot.
Cases are typically heard by military attorneys or judge advocates. After seeing photos of the dent in Hamza Abid's car, Capt. Tracy tells Abid to return next week with statements from witnesses.
Victims or relatives bear the onus of proof, and are typically asked for a range of documents including death certificates, hospital records, police statements, affidavit statements, identity cards, receipts, the military unit number, the number of soldiers and vehicles involved, and a map showing the location of the incident.
With sporadic phone service, incessant traffic jams, and many governmental services not fully functioning since the war, most claimants say they need days or weeks to put their cases together.
Tracy's office is open two days a week. He spends much of his other time trying to verify cases by checking military logs and calling soldiers. He has to investigate each incident because many claims are false. More than 5,600 claims have been rejected, and 3,800 are outstanding. "If you start just handing out money, everyone will be lining up here," says Tracy.
The two claimants behind Abid say their 12- and 18-year-old cousins were shot dead by US soldiers while walking along a Baghdad highway. They have death certificates and the date, but little else. Tracy interviews them for 20 minutes, and then tells them to return in a week after he's checked military logs.
"By their description of the incident, sounds like military vehicles came under an RPG attack and the victims were hit by returned fire," Tracy says. Because it was combat-related, the soldiers were justified in shooting, Tracy said. "Still, we'll give them a sympathy pay."
Under the Foreign Claims Act, the amount of payment is determined by "the law or the custom of the place where the occurrence happened." At brigade level, a military lawyer or judge can award damages up to $2,500 but at the Combined Joint Task Force 7 level, a three-person panel can award up to $50,000.
Recipients of "sympathy pay" get much less - injuries are worth $1,000 and death is compensated with $2,500.
Anwar says she has already spent the $11,000 on funeral arrangements, medical care for Hadeel who is traumatized, and on 6-month-old Hassan, who was born weeks after his family's murder.
A soldier at a claims' office told her she will not get any more money. Her grief has turned to anger.
"They destroyed my whole family. I lost my husband, my son, my daughters," she says, weeping. "They destroyed everything beautiful in my life."