Civilian deaths costly for U.S.

Iraqis' claims usually rejected, fueling hostility

October 11, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- On a dusty street in Samarra, a bustling city north of Baghdad, two brothers, 10 and 12, are carrying plastic bags of groceries home from the market. Approaching an intersection guarded by U.S. troops, they strip off their white undershirts and wave them in the air as they cautiously venture across. Suddenly, shots.

Down goes the 10-year old, his stomach ripped by bullets. Down goes the 12-year-old with his stomach shot away.

This snapshot, as documented by Iraqi witnesses, is the mundane and perhaps inevitable collision between Iraqi civilians and heavily armed troops who are maneuvering, against a shadowy enemy, entirely within a civilian world of schoolchildren, bustling markets and traffic jams.

Few of these incidents draw the white-hot media attention that Blackwater and other civilian contractors have achieved with the alleged shooting of Iraqi civilians by the company's security guards.

And in the daily and often deadly encounters of Iraqi civilians with the U.S. military documented in hundreds of case files recently released by the Army, there is often no one clearly at fault.

But the steady accumulation of sorrow, pain and frustration that these cases engender might be keeping out of reach a critical U.S. goal in Iraq: winning the support of the civilian population. Without that support, experts say, no troop withdrawal plans or demands for political reconciliation in Iraq will matter.

"Fundamentally, in a counterinsurgency you have to provide security for people and convince them there is hope for a better future," said retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, who served on active duty in Baghdad and later wrote a book on counterinsurgency warfare, The Sling and the Stone.

Or as Lt. Gen. James Mattis directed his Marines operating in Anbar province: "First, do no harm."

American troops are exhaustively trained to avoid harming innocent civilians, and they operate under strict rules that govern when lethal force can be used. Unlike private security contractors, U.S. military clashes with civilians are routinely investigated.

But for Iraqis such as the father and extended family of the two boys killed in Samarra in October 2005, nothing "explains or palliates their loss," said Gary Solis, a retired Marine officer and expert on military-civilian clashes who teaches law at Georgetown University. "The U.S. usually -- almost always -- becomes the object of the survivors' anger and hatred."

That could explain the anger, baffling to some outsiders, that many Iraqis express toward the United States, rather than gratitude for toppling Saddam Hussein. According to an August poll of more than 2,000 people across Iraq, 72 percent said the American presence in Iraq is making things worse, up from 69 percent in February. Eight-five percent said they had "not much" or "no" confidence in U.S. forces, up from 66 percent in 2004.

For moral but also purely war-fighting reasons, the military has struggled to ease the impact of its operations. The troops invading Iraq in March 2003 brought with them soldiers trained to handle claims by Iraqi civilians of wrongful death, injury or damage. Their key tool was the 1942 Foreign Claims Act, designed for an entirely different kind of warfare but intended "to engender good will and promote friendly relations" with civilians, said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

In addition, since March 2004, the U.S. command in Baghdad has authorized combat commanders to offer "condolence payments" of up to $2,500 for death, injury or property damage. Commanders are given broad discretion to offer such payments depending on local conditions. In both cases, however, there are drawbacks.

In the Samarra case, the dead boys' father came to the 101st Airborne Division asking for compensation. His sons waved their white shirts as a "symbol of peace," he explained.

Asking for $6,000 compensation, he offered death certificates, witness accounts and legal opinions. It was not enough. An Army lawyer denied the claim citing "the Foreign Claims Act, 10 U.S.C. 2734, as implemented by Army Regulation 27-20."

The father -- his name and all others on the released documents were blacked out by Army censors -- ran afoul of the law's fine print, which requires proof that American soldiers were negligent. On the form handed back to him, an Army lawyer had circled one of five reasons for denial, explaining that there was "not enough evidence to prove your claim."

Claimants also must establish that they are "friendly to the United States." And any deaths that occurred during combat operations are ineligible for payments, a criterion that could exempt nearly every claim.

"You look at the soldiers involved, and if they felt they were in combat, if they perceived a threat and reacted, you were supposed to conclude that that was a combat operation," said Jon Tracy, a retired Army officer who processed claims as an Army lawyer in Iraq for 14 months in 2003 and 2004.

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