Monday, June 30, 2008

The Price of One Iraqi Life

The Price of One Iraqi Life

U.S. military tries to pacify grieving Iraqis with condolence payments

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LSA Anaconda, Iraq - The woman named Sabah is wearing a black dress and scarf as she sits across the desk from Sgt. Jonathan Fondow inside a small trailer.

"Please tell her we're extremely sorry and we know no amount can replace her loss," Fondow, an Army paralegal, says through the interpreter. Sabah's body stiffens, her expression suspended between grimace and complete loss.

Master Sgt. Troy Baylis then comes from the other side of the room and, after getting a signature from Sabah, begins to count the money onto the desk: $1,000 U.S. - in stacked $50 bills. Sabah takes the money and shuffles out of the trailer office.

Her son, Mohamed, in his mid-20s, was from nearby Albu Hisma, in Salah ad-Din Province, about an hour north of Baghdad. Mohamed had been a member of the Sons of Iraq (SOI), a group of local, armed civilians also known as Concerned Local Citizens, who are paid by the U.S. military to guard checkpoints in problem areas around Iraq, mostly within the Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad.

Army reports said Mohamed was guarding a rooftop when U.S. Apache helicopters saw an armed man who was not supposed to be stationed there. Pilots tried to communicate to him via radio to put his gun down, but when he did not, the Apaches opened fire, killing Mohamed instantly. The pilots later said they had seen the colored flares of tracer bullets fired at them.

Once U.S. forces realized they had killed a Son of Iraq, they went to Mohamed's house to make a condolence payment. According to Fondow, who investigates local Iraqi combat damage claims under the watch of the 2nd Battalion 320th Field Artillery Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Mohamed's uncle and cousin convinced the soldiers that the two of them were responsible for supporting his orphaned children. They accepted the Army's condolence payment and promptly disappeared.

This betrayal left Sabah with $1,000 instead of the $2,500 typically paid in condolence to families of Iraqi civilians who are killed during combat operations.

The amount seems minuscule by U.S. standards, but a non-Westerner employed on base often earns between $12 to $18 a day, according to Sgt. Erin Murphy, a paralegal for the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command. A payment of $2,500 is equivalent to a year's income, she says.

Iraq's 2007 per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was approximately $3,600, according to the CIA World Fact Book. But with unemployment hovering between 20 percent to 30 percent, the yearly income of a subsistence-level farmer in Albu Hishma could be substantially less.

"I feel if coalition forces are at fault, we should pay them," Fondow says. "If we don't pay them, what are they going to do?"

Fondow normally makes two to three accidental death payments per month in this mixed Sunni-Shiite area around the city of Balad, which has recently seen hundreds of men with insurgent histories enter reconciliation agreements with U.S. troops. According to the terms, if the men lay down their arms and agree to appear before an Iraqi judge, U.S. forces agree to stop actively hunting them.

A Small History of Payments

"Soldiers who deploy want to feel that they are making a difference," Capt. Wjociech Kornacki, Judge Advocate for 1st Armored Division chief of foreign claims, says, "and making payments for claims makes you feel that way." Many of those same families who received the payment will come back to report on insurgent recruiting efforts, he added.

But "each unit handles claims differently," Fondow says. "We're high on morale, but all it takes is to lose one solider to change the view," implying that the level of enemy attacks influences how these discretionary payments are made.

The conservative total death toll for Iraqi civilians in this war is reported to be between 84,050 and 91,713, according to IraqiBodyCount.org, a public site that has counted media reports of violent non-combatant deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. The British journal Lancet estimates the civilian death toll to be in the hundreds of thousands.

If an innocent civilian is killed, a Commander's Emergency Relief Program (CERP) payment can be made as a condolence from U.S. forces.

The need for CERP began shortly after the 2003 invasion, when commanders realized they had no recourse for damages caused during combat missions, which are not covered under the Foreign Claims Act, says Captain Kornacki. According to Kornacki, the Foreign Claims Act covers only non-combat-related damages. For example if an Army jeep not on a combat patrol, runs into a civilian's car, the car owner can be paid under the Foreign Claims Act.

In April 2003, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division recovered a total of $650 million that had been hidden in panic by Saddam Hussein's regime, the Los Angeles Times reported. The discovery became the seed money for various reconstruction projects during the initial phases of the war.

Congress later approved the first $180 million to help fund CERP, according to the Joint Force Quarterly. (Congressional funding has increased since, including $500 million in 2004.) In the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008, Congress allocated $977,441,000 for CERP.

Such payments to victims' families are not an admission of liability, says Kornacki, which could potentially open the U.S. military to lawsuits from foreign nationals. Instead, the military calls them "good will payments," and in a war against an enemy that has been known to pay civilians less than $100 to plant a roadside bomb, a CERP payment could counter such insurgent enticements, he says.

"Respect and Sympathy"

When Maj. Gen. David Petraeus was still commander of the 101st Brigade in Mosul, he used millions in CERP funds for much publicized rebuilding of schools and hospitals. "Money is the most powerful weapon we have," Petraeus said at the time.

In Iraq, condolence payments are a cultural norm, says Kornacki. When a car collision results in a death, for example, two sheiks will negotiate a nominal payment for funeral expenses that the party at fault will pay.

Osman Abdel Karim Hussein, 36, mayor of Adwar - a small city in central Iraq, about 10 miles south of Tikrit - is from a prominent tribal family in Salah ad-Din. He says tribal law traditionally arbitrates all conflicts before Iraqi law enforcement or courts are involved.

In the U.S. program, when soldiers kick in the wrong door or shoot the wrong person, they leave a claim card for damages, Fondow says. Local sheiks often provide background information as to the character and allegiance of those making the claims.

"If it's not a 'target hit,' more than likely it will be a condolence payment," Fondow says. "If family members were not on the 'black list' [those wanted by coalition forces], it will be a payment."

Any payment must follow the chain of command to the brigade commander. If the paralegal recommends a payment of more than $2,500 - in the case of multiple damages or deaths - the case goes to the division level to be approved.

"Iraqis prefer respect and sympathy versus $2,500 thrown at them," Kornacki says. "We'll explain why, if we won't pay."

The most difficult part of the job, Fondow says, is investigating legitimate claims when there are so many fraudulent ones. In a case from a few years ago, U.S. forces suspected that insurgents who had fired on them earlier in the week had later tried to file damage claims for vehicles destroyed when troops had returned fire.

Fondow, who is on his third deployment in Iraq, says that in cases when a death occurs, it's always more complicated. Turning down a legitimate claim opens the risk that family members may turn to insurgents for revenge.

"If they're trying to feed their children," he says, "the claims mission is very important. And equally important, is the level of respect it shows."

Freelance journalist James Foley embedded with the Indiana National Guard in February, two months after graduating from the master's program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in December 2007. He'll be embedded in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division through July. Read his blog here.

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