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What Iraqis receive for their losses

By Christina AsquithCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2004


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.

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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.