WASHINGTON -- Iraqi civilians who have suffered from U.S. military operations face steep obstacles in obtaining compensation for the deaths of their loved ones or material damage, human rights analysts say.
The case of Italian agent Nicola Calipari, gunned down at a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad on March 4 as he was escorting an Italian hostage to freedom, shows how reluctant the United States is to admit culpability, even in high-profile cases.
There is no reason to think that when a nameless Iraqi without international connections is the victim, the U.S. military would take it even remotely seriously.
Institute for Policy Studies
The United States exonerated American forces in the incident, but Rome on Monday blamed nervous U.S. troops.
"There is no reason to think that when a nameless Iraqi without international connections is the victim, the U.S. military would take it even remotely seriously," said Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that opposes the U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Statistics on civilian deaths in cross fire or at checkpoints in Iraq are scarce. Any released figures usually refer only to Baghdad and cover limited periods.
Marla Ruzicka, a humanitarian-aid worker, campaigned to persuade the U.S. military to keep and release civilian casualty figures and helped persuade Congress to authorize $20 million for families of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces.
Ruzicka herself died on April 16 when her car was caught in an insurgent attack.
Just before her death, Ruzicka wrote in a report that she had received information from the U.S. military that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad alone during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5.
The United States allows Iraqis to seek compensation for material damage, death or injury, but claims must be due to a "non-combat situation" and prove wrongful action or negligence.
An investigation by the Dayton Daily News in October analyzed 4,611 civil claims in Iraq against the U.S. military and found that three out of four were denied.
The average payment for a civilian death was $4,421. In some cases, Iraqis received $2,500 sympathy payments without going through the claims procedure.
The claims process is "Kafkaesque" in complexity and designed to frustrate most Iraqis, said a joint report in early 2004 by Occupation Watch and the Defense of Human Rights in Iraq, two groups monitoring U.S. military operations.
"The U.S. military's definition of a 'combat situation' is elastic and ephemeral, and because the rules of engagement are secret, it is difficult to understand what legal space exists for people to have their cases heard and receive compensation," the report said.
"Because of the way the compensation system is structured and managed, the American troops have adopted an atmosphere of impunity. Arrogant and violent behavior goes unpunished and continues," they said.
Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, said in an e-mail to Reuters that after an incident that caused casualties, a commander would normally start an inquiry and name an investigating officer. No Iraqis are included in such investigations.
U.S. personnel believed to have committed crimes are put on trial, Boylan said. Last month, the military held a hearing into whether to court martial 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano for the premeditated murder of two Iraqis in April 2004. A ruling is pending.
In October 2003, Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report on civilian casualties in Iraq, saying it had collected credible reports of 94 deaths in Baghdad between May and September of that year that warranted investigation.
The organization recommended ways to lower civilian casualties and provide compensation but said it saw no evidence its findings were taken seriously by U.S. officials.
"Certainly no one in the U.S. government told us our ideas had any merit," said Joe Stork, of the Human Rights Watch Middle East division.
The United States does not keep count of Iraqi civilian casualties. The British medical journal, The Lancet, last October put the toll since the U.S. invasion of March 2003 at around 100,000, most caused by U.S. air attacks at the war's beginning.
The London-based group Iraq Body Count, which tallies only deaths directly reported by the media or tallied by official bodies, puts the total at between 21,000 and 24,000. For recent months, deaths have been in the 400-600 range, most caused by insurgent attacks.
Stork said U.S. investigations of Iraqi casualties were insufficiently rigorous.
"When there are civilian casualties, the immediate commander interviews the soldiers on the ground and makes a decision on whether it should be referred on for further investigation. In very few cases does it move beyond this immediate inquiry," he said.
Sometimes, the U.S. military is forced to investigate, such as when journalists for international news organizations are killed. Even then, critics say the investigations have not been timely, serious or thorough.
© Reuters 2005