BAGHDAD - Iraqis accuse U.S. troops of stealing money and other property during what they say are aggressive and even destructive American raids on homes that can devastate families socially and financially.
"It's a huge problem. Almost everyone has something to say about gold, money and other valuables going missing and they don't believe they'll ever get them back," said Adel Alami, a lawyer with Iraq's Human Rights Organization.
Over the past 14 months of occupation, U.S. forces have carried out thousands of raids on homes across the country in which money, jewelry and other property have been seized from Iraqis suspected of "anti-coalition activities."
The U.S. military says items are generally confiscated on suspicion they could be used to finance attacks against U.S.-led forces, and that this has led to some success in cutting off funding for guerrillas.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said he was aware of Iraqi complaints of theft during raids and that some U.S. soldiers had been disciplined for "inappropriate conduct." But he said the problem was "very rare, extremely rare."
"We're aware of it ... But there's also the possibility of Iraqis making malicious claims," said the spokesman.
He said a receipt was always given for confiscated items and if the owner was eventually found to be innocent they could get the property back.
But many Iraqis who have had items confiscated say no receipts were provided.
They say the raids often target the wrong people and that lifetime savings, precious jewelry and family heirlooms are regularly stolen in the process.
Alami says the majority of cases his group deals with involve Iraqis seeking compensation for lost property and cash.
Last year, Wajiha Daoud, an 80-year-old widow, had her house in a middle-class neighborhood of Baghdad raided by U.S. troops who said they had "high-level intelligence" that the home was a safe house for Saddam Hussein loyalists.
During the raid, which lasted around 30 minutes, the woman and her family, who live across the street, were kept outside.
"When we went back in, the house was half-destroyed," said her son Musadaq Younis, an English-speaking computer technician.
"All the furniture was slashed with knives, tables and chairs were broken and the windows smashed. They didn't need to break down the front door -- I told them I had the key."
But that was not the worst. When Younis' sister arrived she immediately rushed upstairs to a small cabinet and found it empty -- $5,000 in cash, gold and other jewelry, including her wedding ring, were missing. "She went white," said Younis.
The family filed a claim against the U.S. military -- a complex process that took nearly three months to get a reply. In response, the military said the raid was justified and no compensation was owed. The officer who commanded the raid told Younis: "My soldiers aren't thieves."
Being comfortably well off and employed the impact of the loss on the family was not too great, but for other Iraqi families raids on their homes can prove devastating.
"Confiscation and theft during raids is rampant," said Stewart Vriesinga, a coordinator for Christian Peacemaker Teams, a non-profit group that documents abuses in Iraq.
"Soldiers don't seem to understand the Iraqi custom of not using banks -- a lot of people keep fairly substantial sums of money at home," Vriesinga said.
"A soldier from Kentucky or wherever sees that and thinks the person must be up to no good, so he takes it.
"We sure don't know how much money has been taken from (Iraqis)...but it's enough to have serious socio-economic consequences."
Vriesinga estimates that in nine out of 10 raids, the home owners are innocent but suffer huge consequences.
"If the husband is hauled off as a suspect, the family has lost its breadwinner and often lost its savings and cash as well," he said, citing a Red Cross report that referred to up to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees being innocent.
If Iraqis filed complaints, it came down to a case of the Iraqi suspect's word against the U.S. soldier's, he said.
"If there's any doubt, then it's assumed the Iraqi is lying -- the Americans are creating enemies by the score."
© Copyright Reuters 2004