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Payouts reveal Iraq civilian toll

BBC | April 13, 2007

A civil liberties group has obtained files from the US Army on compensation claims to Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed and hurt by coalition forces.

The American Civil Liberties Union received the records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Of the 496 claims, 164 resulted in cash payments to families, the ACLU says. Many files relate to civilian deaths at checkpoints or near US convoys.

The military only pays compensation in cases not involving combat activity.

If it does not accept responsibility for the civilian's death, the military can make a discretionary "condolence" payment, which is offered without admission of fault and is capped at $2,500.

In the 164 claims resulting in payments, about half were for compensation and the remainder condolence payments.

The New York-based ACLU believes the files it has received are a very small proportion of those held by the defence department, and is pressing it to disclose them all.

Civilian 'burden'

Jameel Jaffer, an attorney for the ACLU, told the BBC News website it was the first time the US government had released records of this kind.

"For the first time they give the public access to very detailed information about the human costs of war," he said.

"They allow the public to understand the burden that has been borne by civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The details published by the ACLU are summaries of claims submitted to the US Foreign Claims Commission by the relatives of civilians said to have been killed as a result of actions by coalition forces.

Some 479 of the claims relate to incidents in Iraq, dating from May 2003 to late 2006 with the majority in 2005, and 17 to Afghanistan, most dating from 2006.

One file records a payment of $35,000 made to a family in Hib Hib, Iraq, after US forces "accidentally discharged 155 mm rounds", killing three children aged five, 16 and 18 and damaging their home.

Another, dating from February 2006, describes how a fisherman in Tikrit was shot as he reached down to switch off the engine of his boat. He had been shouting "fish, fish" and pointing to his catch.

The US Army refused to compensate his family for his death, ruling that it was the result of combat activity, but paid $3,500 for the loss of his boat - which drifted off - net and mobile phone.

In a third file, a civilian states that US forces opened fire with more than 100 rounds on his sleeping family, killing his mother, father and brother. He was also hurt and 32 of the family's sheep killed.

The US Army paid $11,200 compensation and made a $2,500 condolence payment. It had been responding to an attack from the direction of the village.

Mother killed

About a fifth of the claims - 92 of the 496 files - relate to deaths at checkpoints or near US convoys, the ACLU points out.

In one case, a civilian records how his mother was killed and his sister and four-year-old brother injured after the taxi in which they were travelling ran through a checkpoint in the Iraqi town of Baquba.

An Army memo states: "There is evidence to suggest that the warning cones and printed checkpoint signs had not yet been displayed in front of the checkpoint, which may be the reason why the driver of the taxi did not believe he was required to stop."

A condolence payment of $7,500 was suggested but it is not known if it was paid.

Hearts and minds

Incidents that have not been logged in the US military's "significant act" database are generally denied compensation for lack of evidence, despite eyewitness statements. Condolence payments may be made.

Some letters sent to notify denial of a claim conclude with the phrase "I wish you well in a Free Iraq".

Mr Jaffer fears such platitudes and some instances of claims being denied may be damaging US efforts to win "hearts and minds" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's extremely important from a policy point of view that the US compensates people in these kinds of claims and that the system is fair and not arbitrary," he said.

And while very many civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, the 1,700 pages of files received by the ACLU tell the stories of those killed by coalition forces in "very human detail".

Many prove to be the tragic result of miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides, Mr Jaffer added.

The US defence department has said it regrets any civilian deaths and strives to prevent them.

"Any loss of life is tragic and our forces, as well as the forces we serve with, take every available means to limit the effects of combat on civilians," defence department spokesman Todd Wician told the BBC.

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