Civilian Claims on U.S. Suggest the Toll of WarNY Times
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
April 12, 2007
In February 2006, nervous American soldiers in Tikrit killed an Iraqi fisherman on the Tigris River after he leaned over to switch off his engine. A year earlier, a civilian filling his car and an Iraqi Army officer directing traffic were shot by American soldiers in a passing convoy in Balad, for no apparent reason.
The incidents are among many thousands of claims submitted to the Army by Iraqi and Afghan civilians seeking payment for noncombat killings, injuries or property damage American forces inflicted on them or their relatives.
The claims provide a rare window into the daily chaos and violence faced by civilians and troops in the two war zones. Recently, the Army disclosed roughly 500 claims to the American Civil Liberties Union in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. They are the first to be made public.
They represent only a small fraction of the claims filed. In all, the military has paid more than $32 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage, an Army spokeswoman said. That figure does not include condolence payments made at a unit commander's discretion.
The paperwork, examined by The New York Times, provides unusually detailed accounts of how bystanders to the conflicts have become targets of American forces grappling to identify who is friend, who is foe.
In the case of the fisherman in Tikrit, he and his companion desperately tried to appear unthreatening to an American helicopter overhead.
"They held up the fish in the air and shouted 'Fish! Fish!' to show they meant no harm," said the Army report attached to the claim filed by the fisherman's family. The Army refused to compensate for the killing, ruling that it was "combat activity," but approved $3,500 for his boat, net and cellphone, which drifted away and were stolen.
In the killings at the gas station in Balad, documents show that the Army determined that the neither of the dead Iraqis had done anything hostile or criminal, and approved $5,000 to the civilian's brother but nothing for the Iraqi officer.
In another incident, in 2005, an American soldier in a dangerous Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad killed a boy after mistaking his book bag for a bomb satchel. The Army paid the boy's uncle $500.
The Foreign Claims Act, which governs such compensation, does not deal with combat-related cases. For those cases, including the boy's, the Army may offer a condolence payment as a gesture of regret with no admission of fault, of usually no higher than $2,500 per person killed.
The total number of claims filed, or paid, is unclear, although extensive data has been provided in reports to Congress. There is no way to know immediately whether disciplinary action or prosecution has resulted from the cases.
Soldiers hand out instruction cards after mistakes are made, so Iraqis know where to file claims. "The Army does not target civilians," said Maj. Anne D. Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. "Sadly, however, the enemy's tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan unnecessarily endanger innocent civilians."
There are no specific guidelines to tell Army field officers judging the claims how to evaluate the cash value of a life taken, Major Edgecomb said. She said officers "consider the contributions the deceased made to those left behind and offer an award based on the facts, local tribal customs, and local law."
In Haditha, one of the most notorious incidents involving American troops in Iraq, the Marines paid residents $38,000 after troops killed two dozen people in November 2005.
The relatively small number of claims divulged by the Army show patterns of misunderstanding at checkpoints and around American military convoys that often result in inadvertent killings. In one incident, in Feb. 18, 2006, a taxi approached a checkpoint east of Baquba that was not properly marked with signs to slow down, one Army claim evaluation said. Soldiers fired on the taxi, killing a woman and severely wounding her daughter and son. The Army approved an unusually large condolence payment of $7,500.
In September 2005, soldiers killed a man and his sister by firing 200 rounds into their car as it approached a checkpoint, apparently too quickly, near Mussayib. The Army lieutenant colonel who handled the claim awarded relatives a $10,000 compensation payment, finding that the soldiers had overstepped the rules of engagement.
"There are some very tragic losses of civilian life, including losses of whole families," said Anthony D. Romero, the A.C.L.U.'s executive director, in an interview. He said the claims showed "enormous confusion on all sides, both from the civilian population on how to interact with the armed services and also among the soldiers themselves."
Of the 500 cases released, 204, or about 40 percent, were apparently rejected because the injury, death or property damage was deemed to have been "directly or indirectly" related to combat. Of the claims approved for payment, at least 87 were not combat-related, and 77 were condolence payments for incidents the Army judged to be combat-related.
About 10 percent of the claims were rejected because the Army could not find a "significant activity" report confirming an incident.
A summary of the cases is online at www.aclu.org/civiliancasualties.
In Iraq, rules for evaluating claims have changed. Before President Bush declared major combat operations over, in May 2003, commanders considered most checkpoint shootings to be combat-related. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the former commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, stiffened rules at checkpoints. In late 2003, as more Iraqis were accidentally injured or killed, the Army began offering condolence payments. It has not always worked as planned, said Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a nonprofit group in Washington.
"Sometimes families would get paid and sometimes their neighbors wouldn't," she said. "It caused a lot of resentments among the Iraqis, which is ironic because it was a program specifically meant to foster good will."
The Army usually assigns a captain, major or lieutenant colonel to accept claims in Iraq and Afghanistan and decide on payment.
But in and near combat zones in Iraq, a claim's merit is quickly judged by an officer juggling dozens of new claims each week, said Jon E. Tracy, a former Army captain and lawyer who adjudicated Iraqi civilian claims in the Baghdad area from May 2003 through July 2004.
"I know plenty of lawyers who did not pay any condolences payments at all," said Mr. Tracy, who is now a legal consultant for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. "There was no reason for it. It was clearly not combat, and the victim was clearly innocent, all the facts are there, witness statements, but they wouldn't pay them."
Half of the claims he adjudicated were property damage claims from collisions with military vehicles, he said. Most fraudulent claims were property claims; few were for wrongful killings. "You just had to read people," he said.
About a quarter of claims were for personal injury or deaths. In his year judging claims, Mr. Tracy said he paid 52 condolence payments, most for deaths. "I had three to four times more," Mr. Tracy said, "I just didn't have enough money."
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting from New York, and Edward Wong from Baghdad.