WASHINGTON - The Department of Defense spent nearly $31 million in three years in condolence payments to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it didn't track how it doled out the money, a Government Accountability Office report found.
The report, released Thursday, is the most detailed public study of compensation payments in the two wars. It found, for example, that the Defense Department paid $26 million to settle 21,450 claims, or an average of $1,212 per claim.
The military makes condolence payments for killing or injuring a civilian or for damaging property. Generally, Iraqis and Afghanis received up to $2,500 for property damage or death. In April 2006, military officials in Iraq raised the maximum payment to $10,000. In addition, U.S. officials began paying the relatives of Iraqi soldiers and police who were killed because of U.S. operations, the report states.
But the department doesn't indicate how many of those payments went for killed civilians, injured civilians or for property damage. U.S. officials have never released statistics on how many civilians have been killed by U.S. troops.
According to the report, the U.S. began compensating Iraqi civilians or their relatives in June 2003 for inadvertent killings or property damage, usually at the discretion of the forces on the ground. But the military didn't establish guidelines for paying civilians until October 2004. U.S. forces began compensating Afghanis in October 2005.
But those compensation reports aren't very detailed, a Washington advocacy group found. In a separate report released Thursday, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict found that many reports contained only a sheet of paper with a synopsis of what happened.
Sarah Holewinski, CIVIC executive director, said that none of the reports the military has made public details the incidents the way the GAO report recommended. "All we have seen are bulk-line items. And that kind of generality does not lead to accountability," Holewinski said.
The amount of condolence payments in Iraq dropped by two-thirds between 2005 and 2006. During that time, U.S. officials said that Iraqi civilians were being killed because they couldn't identify U.S. checkpoints. The U.S. subsequently made checkpoints more easily identifiable, and the military said the number of civilian casualties declined.
U.S. officials also paid for scores of homes that were damaged during the November 2004 offensive in Fallujah.
From October 2004 to September 2005, the Defense Department gave Iraqis $21,528,664 in condolence payments, compared with $7,311,911 the following year. In Afghanistan, the military paid $210,758 from October 2005 to September 2006.
In its recommendations, the authors of the report said the Defense Department should better differentiate payments for civilians injured or killed and those whose properties were damaged.
But Holewinski said that even if the military met those recommendations, that wouldn't explain how civilians were killed and why
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.