For Iraqis in Harm's Way, ,000 and 'I'm Sorry'
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: March 17, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 16 — Nearly a year ago, Ali Kadem Hashem watched his wife burn to death and his three children die after an American missile hit his house.
Last week, he got ,000 from the United States government and an "I'm sorry" from a young captain.
Mr. Hashem sat for a few moments staring at the stack of bills, crisp 0's.
"Part of me didn't want to take it," he said. "It was an insult."
But the captain, Jonathan Tracy, insisted. "A few thousand dollars isn't going to bring anybody back," he explained later. "But right now, it's all we can do."
It has been nearly a year since the war in Iraq started but American military commanders are just now reckoning with the volume of civilian casualties streaming in for assistance. Twice a week, at a center in Baghdad, masses of grief-weary Iraqis line up, some on crutches, some disfigured, some clutching photographs of smashed houses and silenced children, all ready to file a claim for money or medical treatment. It is part of a compensation process devised for this war.
Outside the room where the captain was saying he was sorry, a long line of people waited. One was Ayad Bressem, a 12-year-old boy scorched by a cluster bomb. His face is covered by ugly blue freckles. Children call him "Mr. Gunpowder."
"I just want something," the burned boy said.
"Come back later," a guard told him. "You'll get some money. But we're busy."
Military officials say they do not have precise figures or even estimates of the number of noncombatant Iraqis killed and wounded by American-led forces in Iraq.
"We don't keep a list," said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell. "It's just not policy."
But nonprofit groups in Iraq and the United States say there were thousands of civilian casualties. According to Civic, a nonprofit organization that has surveyed Iraqi hospitals, burial societies and hundreds of families, more than 5,000 civilians were killed between March 20, when the war started, and May 1, when major combat operations ended. "It says a lot that the military doesn't even keep track of these things," said Marla Ruzicka, Civic's founder.
The Project on Defense Alternatives, a nonpartisan arms control think tank in Cambridge, Mass., tracked Iraqi civilian casualties through hospital surveys and demographic analysis. The group estimated that the number of innocents killed in heavy combat was between 3,200 and 4,300.
Whatever the true figures, the list is growing. Since May 1, many Iraqi civilians have been cut down by American forces in checkpoint shootings and crossfires, accidents and mishaps. Last week, a 14-year-old Kurdish girl was killed by an American mortar round near the northern city of Mosul. Army officials said soldiers fired the mortar at terrorists. It fell short. A few months ago, according to an official with the Iraqi Interior Ministry, American soldiers shot and killed a man driving in his car because he had a hole in his muffler and the sputtering exhaust sounded like gunfire.
"The Americas are so jumpy," said Jameel Ghani Hashim, manager of homicide statistics for the Interior Ministry. Mr. Hashim has a five-inch-thick stack of reports detailing civilian casualties. He said preliminary figures indicated that about 500 Iraqi civilians had been killed by American-led forces during the occupation. Mohammed al-Mosawi, deputy director of the Human Rights Organization of Iraq, said more than 400 families had filed reports of wrongful deaths at the hands of American soldiers.
American commanders declined to quantify how many Iraqi civilians had been killed by their forces during the occupation. "We do keep records of innocent civilians who are killed accidentally by coalition force soldiers," said Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, assistant commander for the First Armored Division, which patrols Baghdad. "And, in fact, in every one of those innocent death situations, we conduct internal investigations to determine what happened."
Nonprofit groups tracking civilian casualties said the military had learned some lessons from the conflict in Afghanistan, in which hundreds of civilians were killed after faulty intelligence steered bombs into the wrong villages. The groups credited the military with doing a better job in Iraq of selecting targets to minimize civilian casualties.
But many groups faulted the military for its continued use of cluster bombs, explosives within explosives that sprinkle hundreds of soda-can size "bomblets" over a wide area. Steve Goose, an arms expert at Human Rights Watch, an organization that published two reports on civilian casualties in Iraq, said that while the Air Force showed greater restraint using cluster bombs, the Army did not. "The Army is still using older weapons and firing them into heavily populated areas," Mr. Goose said.
A Pentagon spokesman defended the use of cluster bombs, saying, "Coalition forces used cluster munitions in very specific cases against valid military targets."
One of the problems with cluster bombs is that some bomblets do not explode right away. That is what disfigured Ayad, the boy whose face looks as if it was tattooed. Ayad said that on April 25, he was tending cows in the village of Kifil, south of Baghdad, when a bomblet in the grass burst open. It embedded bits of metal in his face, leaving him blind in one eye and coating his skin with dark dots that look like pencil stabs.
His mother, Nazar, rushed him to the village doctor. Ayad was in a coma for weeks. When he emerged, his mother looked down at a face she barely knew. "He used to be so beautiful," she said. His father, Ali, went to dozens of Army hospitals and bases. Army doctors said Ayad's cornea was scarred and that rehabilitation would be difficult.
Ayad is a smiley boy but sometimes he flies into rage. "He beats me for no reason," his mother said. "He threatens to cut my throat. But I don't care. I am his mother."
This week, Ayad and his father took a bus to Baghdad. Ayad wore sunglasses and a scarf over his face. He does that often, even when it is boiling hot. "The children tease him," his father explained.
When the two arrived at the center run by Captain Tracy, there was a crowd pressing against the doors. On Sundays and Thursdays, Captain Tracy sits in a room on the second floor of the convention center and doles out stacks of cash to civilian casualty victims. The Army calls them "sympathy payments."
Captain Tracy also helps process claims under the Foreign Claims Act, which covers damages and wrongful deaths but only in noncombat situations. Captain Tracy checks each claim a civilian files against a database of military incident reports. If they match, the military pays the civilians, but does not issue a formal apology or claim of responsibility. Of 540 claims filed, he said he had paid 261. While occasional payments were made to families wrongly bombed in Afghanistan, there was nothing this formalized before.
Captain Tracy, 27, said he had absorbed a lot of grief in that little room. "I'm getting pretty burned out," he said.
He is limited in what he can pay. Guidelines set the maximum sympathy payments at ,000 per injury, ,500 per life. With the daily patter of bombings, rocket attacks and inadvertent killings, life in Iraq may seem cheap. But many Iraqis say it is not that cheap.
"This war of yours cost billions," said Said Abbas Ahmed, who was given ,000 after an American missile killed his brother, his sister, his wife and his six children. "Are we not worth more than a few thousand?"
In the cases of Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Hashem, whose wife and three children were killed, military officials acknowledged the victims' houses had been hit by allied missiles.
Ayad's family say they need money to pay for eye surgery. But by the time Ayad and his father reached the front of the line, Captain Tracy was closing for the day. While Ayad pleaded with a guard, his father held up a small piece of paper to the glass doors. "I have a serious problem," it read. "I need help. I wish I have a translator."
Nobody responded. A few hours later, the two were back on the bus, headed home.