Claims Detail Grim Civilian Toll

by Eli Clifton

13 April 2007

WASHINGTON (IPS) - Newly released documents have made public hundreds of claims for damages by Iraqi civilians requesting compensations for the death and injury of family members as a result of operations by Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's a first glimpse at the claim process that's used in Iraq and Afghanistan but it's only a limited glimpse and is not indicative of the number of claims," Jon Tracy, military and legal advisor at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), told IPS. "There are a lot more claims out there that could be released and should be released."
Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it is critical that the American people have access to full and accurate information about the prosecution of that war and the implications for innocent civilians.

"Since U.S. troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress information about the human costs of war," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it is critical that the American people have access to full and accurate information about the prosecution of that war and the implications for innocent civilians," he said in a statement.

The ACLU, which filed the Freedom of Information Act request for the documents, points out that the Defense Department has instituted numerous policies to limit the dissemination of information about casualties.

Photographers are banned from covering the arrival of caskets at U.S. military bases, Iraqi journalists have been paid to write positive accounts of the U.S. war effort, "embedded" U.S. journalists are required to submit their stories for pre-publication review, journalists' footage of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has been erased and statistics on civilian casualties have been consistently withheld.

The newly released documents show that the families of more than 500 Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers have asked for compensation for their dead relatives but only a third have been granted it.

In one file, a civilian from Salah Ad Din province in eastern Iraq stated that U.S. soldiers fired more than 100 rounds on his sleeping families' home, killing his mother, father and brother as well as 32 of the family's sheep. The Defense Department admitted responsibility and issued a compensation payment of 11,200 dollars and a 2,500-dollar condolence payment.

In another case, in 2005, a U.S. soldier killed a boy whose book bag was mistaken for a bomb satchel. The boy's uncle was paid 500 dollars.

"It is commendable that the U.S. pays compensation to the families of Iraqis killed by American soldiers, but the military should maintain clear and fair standards for making those payments," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"The U.S. government should also investigate shootings by civilian contractors, compensate for deaths by contractors and hold accountable all personnel who have acted in violation of their duty," he said.

The documents revealed that out of the more than 500 cases of civilian deaths, 164 incidents resulted in cash payments to family members. In around half of those cases, the Defense Department acknowledged responsibility for the deaths under the Foreign Claims Act, which authorizes the armed forces to issue settlements of up to 100,000 dollars. In the other half, the U.S. government did not acknowledge fault but issued "condolence" payments -- capped at 2,500 dollars -- "as an expression of sympathy."

"The 2,500-dollar cap has never made sense to anyone who looked at this program. It's not fair and should be based on other calculations," Sarah Holewinski, executive director of CIVIC, told IPS. "We need a claim act for civilians in combat that mirrors the Foreign Claims Act."

In numerous cases where the Defense Department acknowledged responsibility, deaths of Iraqis were determined as being due to the "negligent" actions of U.S. soldiers. However, very few cases were forwarded for further investigation.

Contradictory interpretations of the rules of engagement appear to have resulted in a lack of uniformity in the system and inconsistent rulings on compensation.

One Iraqi was granted compensation for the death of a relative, shot by U.S. soldiers who fired to clear a road, a violation of the rules of engagement according to a judge-advocate-general (JAG) who ruled in the case.

But similar claims were denied by other JAGs, who ruled that firing to clear a road is a legitimate combat operation.

U.S. policy states that civilian deaths in "combat" are not eligible for compensation.

Civilian deaths or injury caused by U.S. government contractors were consistently denied on the grounds that the Defense Department only processes claims against U.S. government employees, and contractors "are not government employees."

Checkpoints and convoy actions are the two areas most likely to lead to civilian deaths. The U.S. Army has improved checkpoint procedures but has not yet addressed the way soldiers can fire from moving convoys to clear roadways, says HRW.

"Reforming convoy procedures to cut down on 'drive-by shootings' while fighting a violent insurgency obviously presents that army with a formidable challenge," Garlasco said. "But while the U.S. military has a right to defend itself from attack, it also has a legal and moral obligation to protect civilians."

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