Copyright 2004 Dayton Newspapers, Inc. 

 

Dayton Daily News (Ohio)

 

October 24, 2004 Sunday

 

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1

 

LENGTH: 3619 words

 

HEADLINE: The toll of war; Civil claims provide glimpse into war's impact on Iraqi citizens

 

BYLINE: Russell Carollo, Larry Kaplow, Mike Wagner and Ken McCall Dayton Daily News

 

BODY:

 

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Tahsin Ali Hussein al-Ruba'i knew that danger waited in the darkened streets, where American soldiers suspicious of every approaching vehicle lurked near poorly marked checkpoints.

 

The 32-year-old knew the danger because he made his living - earning $3 to $4 a day - driving his orange-and-white 1983 Volkswagen Passat in the streets of Baghdad. But on July 1, 2003, his infant daughter, Tabarek, had the flu, and he decided to risk driving to his in-laws so he could pick her up and take her to a hospital.

 

As his taxi neared the working-class Cairo Street neighborhood, American soldiers spread several Humvees across an eight-lane boulevard, preparing to stop oncoming vehicles. Fearing someone would be shot because the makeshift checkpoint had no signs, cones or lights, a man selling kabobs along the road 50 yards away started waving and yelling at unsuspecting motorists.

 

Al-Ruba'i apparently never got the warning.

 

Soldiers opened fire with rifles and mounted machine guns, riddling his taxi with bullet holes and killing him, witnesses said.

 

"They (the soldiers) were the reason for what happened. They didn't point to him and tell him to stop," said the kabob vendor, Taha Mehdi al-Jabouri. "They treat us in a savage way."

 

The family filed a civil claim asking for $2,500 from the American military, but the claim was denied.

 

The case is among 4,611 never-beforereleased civil claims from Iraq - hundreds alleging abuse and misconduct by American military personnel - on a computer database obtained by the Dayton Daily News through the federal Freedom of Information Act. The U.S. Army tort claims database is the most comprehensive public record released to date of alleged acts against Iraqi civilians by American forces, which do not otherwise systematically track civilian casualties.

 

The records provide a previously unseen portrait of the toll the war has had on civilians in Iraq, and the kinds of incidents described in the records have fueled the growing insurgency and hatred toward the American-led coalition.

 

About 78 percent of the claims are for incidents that occurred after President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 2, 2003.

 

"When we first got there, the Iraqis were glad to see us. I believe things changed because there was disrespect to the people," said Elizabeth Wisdorf of Colorado Springs, Colo., who served for nearly a year in Iraq as a member of the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Company. "There were a lot of accidents, a lot of deaths."

 

At least 16 death claims specifically identify 20 children as victims, most from bombings or shootings, and another 193 claims allege 171 sons or daughters were killed without providing an age.

 

Incidents such as these have turned many Iraqis, such as the family of Samir Shleman Chaman, against the American occupation. Chaman, a house painter, was killed when a tank crushed his car as he was returning from a painting job - one of at least 150 Iraqis allegedly killed or injured in encounters with military vehicles.

 

"Our point of view toward the Americans has changed. You can feel the fury inside you," said Amir Shleman, Chaman's brother. "If they treated people like human beings, no one would take up weapons against them."

 

Like other Iraqis, Shleman's grieving family became more outraged at how the military handled their claim for compensation.

 

Chaman was a husband and father of a 7-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. The day after he was killed, the family said, soldiers left $2,000 near the pillow of his widow - money the family was told was for funeral expenses.

 

When they filed a claim through an Iraqi attorney for compensation for the children, they encountered months of delays and confusion before finally receiving a letter on Sept. 7, 2004. "The evidence does not prove that the death of your husband or damages to your vehicle were due to the negligent or wrongful acts of the United States Armed Forces," the letter reads.

 

The claim was denied.

 

"I think it is despicable how we are treating the innocent people or their families after there is a tragedy," said Ivan Medina of Middletown, N.Y., who served as an assistant chaplain for the Army's 10th engineer battalion in Iraq. "We do nothing for them after these terrible things happen. These are innocent people, not soldiers fighting a battle."

 

Army Lt. Col. Charlotte Herring said the Army, which handles civil claims for all three services in Iraq, has given out $8.2 million since June 2003 and budgeted $10 million in fiscal year 2005 to help the Iraqi people deal with losses suffered because of the war. Considering the dangerous conditions in Iraq, she said, the system is "working famously." She blamed some of the problems on the realities of war and predicted improvements as hostilities subside.

 

Through the claims system, "the local commander can try to keep good will and come and amend a somewhat tragic situation," said Marine Reserve Capt. Sean Dunn, who worked as a platoon commander and supervised claims payments in Iraq. "You're also trying to keep the neighborhood from going nuts and attacking other people."

 

Proving whether the claims were valid, he said, often was a difficult and time-consuming job.

 

"There were blatantly fraudulent claims," he said. "As soon as they realized there was money being paid, they were beating down the door wanting money for all kinds of crazy things with no evidence whatsoever."

 

Soldiers who served in Iraq said innocent civilians sometimes become victims because soldiers are forced to react to situations without knowing whether they will encounter a roadside bomb, an attacker dressed like a civilian or a motorist who steers into a convoy or absent-mindedly runs through a checkpoint.

 

Spc. Charles Bradford, 29, who went to elementary school in Dayton while his father was in the Air Force, earned a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound and survived two roadside bombs and eight rocketpropelled grenade attacks. He is regularly hit with stones when he rides the "gunning" position through the hatch of his Humvee. But he said he has fired his rifle only once since coming to Iraq in March.

 

"I give these people a chance regardless of the stuff I've been through," he said. "Every day I go out of the (base), I pray I don't have to kill anyone."

 

Spc. Grant Horn, 23, of Quakertown, Penn., was recently about 50 feet from a car bomb explosion that left him shaken and with cuts on his face. He has not fired at anyone, he said, but he knows that with the city's dangerous streets comes the possibility of wounding a civilian.

 

"You don't want to do it, but if it happened I would be glad I was alive," he said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."

 

Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, a Department of Defense consultant who once headed the strategy department at the National War College, said the fear, hatred and corresponding acts of violence are byproducts of lengthy occupations.

 

"It feeds on itself because people are angry," said Gardiner, who was assigned to strategy and prisoner of war recovery from Thailand during the Vietnam War. "It frightens soldiers more. They feel less secure. They react more strongly, which creates more anger, which causes people to be more afraid, which (makes soldiers) pull the trigger faster.

 

"Once you start down this slippery slope, I don't know that anybody knows how to stop it."

 

'Legitimate targets'

 

Claims in the Army database seek compensation for at least 437 Iraqi deaths and 468 injuries.

 

However, the actual number of casualties is unknown. The database recorded only a portion of the total deaths and injuries because not all alleged acts by American personnel resulted in claims. In addition, difficult conditions in parts of Iraq prevented up to 70 percent of the claims committees there from accessing the database, Herring said. She estimated that the Army has received as many as 18,000 claims in the last year alone.

 

Victims and their families filed claims for homes destroyed in bombings, confiscated property, and injuries and deaths from shootings and bombings, according to the database. In 29 cases, Iraqis claimed the military left so-called "unexploded ordnance" that later detonated, killing 14 and injuring 25 innocent people.

 

The victims in at least six Iraqi claims were allegedly hit by warning shots that went awry.

 

In an April 8, 2004, incident in Balad Ruz, a soldier fired a .50-caliber machine gun into the air to disperse a crowd of about 100 civilian demonstrators, according to an Army account of the incident. The soldier ducked to avoid being hit by rocks being thrown by the crowd, and the gun accidentally discharged twice, killing an 11-yearold boy named Mustafa Nadig, the account says.

 

"The U.S. soldier who shot the 11-year-old boy was seen by (a military officer) with his hands up in the air giving the three-fingered hang loose/surfs up' sign as the soldier was driving away," the Army records say.

 

"It appears probable that U.S. forces facilitated the death of a civilian boy," the records say, adding that a $2,500 payment to the family was approved by a general.

 

In two other warning-shot cases, the victims were described as deaf.

 

Victims in at least two other cases were identified as bus passengers, one whose arm was amputated after a Marine allegedly fired "a warning shot" into the bus. The other, described in Army records as an "innocent passenger," was killed after a soldier from the 194th Military Police Company fired into a bus.

 

The victim in a sixth claim was identified as a 13-year-old boy hit by a "ricochet bullet fired as a warning shot" that entered his thigh and fractured his femur. Army records say that the boy required a year to recover and that there were "some minor residual issues such as a slightly shorter leg."

 

In a separate case, Army records show, a soldier from the 220th Military Police Brigade fired at the tires of a driver who was fleeing soldiers in Scania, "accidentally shooting the deceased in the chest, killing him," according to Army records.

 

The soldier in that case was never prosecuted, an Army spokesman said.

 

Under Section 2 of Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 17, which will remain in effect until the "last coalition element leaves Iraq," coalition forces are immune from civil lawsuits and criminal charges. The immunity leaves Iraqis with a single option: filing for compensation under the Foreign Claims Act with the United States Armed Services, the same entity they are accusing of wrongdoing.

 

Other countries do not grant such immunity to American soldiers.

 

After Spc. Christopher McCarthy was convicted of killing bar hostess Kim Sung-hi in Korea in 2000, the victim's family not only got a $154,000 payment from the Army, but also received a civil judgment from the South Korean court.

 

"We just rounded up what we could and sent it (the money) over there," McCarthy's mother, Susan McCarthy, recalled.

 

More than 1,000 claims involved vehicle accidents - by far the largest category of claims recorded in the database. At least 160 of those involved tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles, resulting in at least seven deaths and 16 injuries.

 

More than 400 claims involved destruction of crops, trees, livestock or water sources - property essential to the survival of Iraqi citizens.

 

A Daily News analysis of the roughly 4,600 claims in Iraq shows just one in four resulted in some type of payment. Of the 51,018 Army claims filed in other countries during that same period, one in two resulted in a payment.

 

Lt. Col. Herring, the chief of the U.S. Army's Foreign Torts Branch, said the database is incomplete. In fiscal year 2004 the Army paid 11,000 claims and denied 3,000, she said. Prior to this past June, however, the Army did not track how many claims were denied.

 

According to the database, the average payment for a death in Iraq was $3,421, less than 1/20th of the average payment for a claim filed anywhere else.

 

On May 12, 2003, an Iraqi man died when a tire fell from a U.S. Army vehicle in Tikrit, and his widow received $5,000, according to Army records. On April 24, 1999, in Bath County, Ky., a female motorist suffered neck and back injuries after a tire fell from a military vehicle, and she got $50,000, or 10 times what the Iraq widow received for losing her husband under nearly identical circumstances.

 

The Army paid $5,000 - the same amount given the Iraq widow - to a woman who got a staple stuck in her finger at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

 

In addition to the formal claims system in Iraq, Iraqis were sometimes given $2,500 in so-called solatia or sympathy payments without any paperwork at all, said attorney Jack Bournazian, who held seminars to show Iraqi attorneys how to file civil claims.

 

The payments, military officials said, were frequently given out as a way of defusing animosity toward American forces and improving relations in a community.

 

Attorneys and representatives of human rights groups said the process used in Iraq to settle civil claims is subjective, left to the whim of individual commanders or claims officers who often make their decisions based on little investigation.

 

"People were told if you want to settle on the spot, we'll give you a certain amount of money," said Gael Murphy, a board member of Occupation Watch, which collected information on incidents involving Iraqi civilians. "Otherwise, your claim has to go to Washington."

 

The military does not pay claims for incidents deemed to be caused by "combat operations," which could include checkpoint shootings and other incidents involving innocent civilians.

 

The military originally told the family of Mazen Nouradin, a husband and father of two young daughters, that he was shot while riding in a car with people firing on coalition forces.

 

Nouradin, a 36-year-old pharmaceutical salesman and veterinarian who had worked as a translator for U.S. forces, was shot dead June 28, 2003, as he waited for a ride to work in front of his home in a middleclass section of Baghdad, according to the family and records filed by an American attorney.

 

His father said he came out of the house immediately after hearing gunshots and found his son's body on the sidewalk.

 

"I saw the American soldiers standing around him," he said. "I got sick and started to throw up."

 

Witnesses said Nouradin was shot after the occupants in two cars began firing at a convoy of U.S. soldiers, who returned fire.

 

In later correspondence, the military, which eventually paid the family $2,500, dropped the allegation that Nouradin was in a car with gunmen, saying only that he was "killed during an exchange of gunfire between Iraqi civilians and members of the coalition forces."

 

The military, however, still refused to pay additional damages, insisting the death was the result of "combat activities" and not subject to compensation.

 

In response to a man who claimed that his two brothers were killed and his parents injured on March 29, 2003, when coalition forces bombed the Al Tajiya area of Babel city, the military wrote: "Coalition forces dropped ordnance during Operation Iraqi Freedom on legitimate targets. Your family was in an area that was being legitimately targeted and therefore regrettably harmed."

 

'Cannot put

 

a price on it'

 

Like thousands of other civil claims, the description provided for claim number 04I1AT189 gives no indication of the impact to the victims or to the U.S.-led coalition's effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

 

The only description of the incident leading to Claim 04I1AT189, which asks for $25,000, reads: "U.S. forces confiscated a knife and Iraqi government dump truck," a seemingly routine description of a routine claim - one of hundreds claiming property was seized or damaged.

 

The incident began with a noon raid on May 18, 2003, at the home of Najedh Abdel Sadeh al-Fatlawi, a 60-year-old retired hospital administrator and father of five sons and two daughters.

 

"They put the women in the front room," he recalled during an interview at his home, adding that they put plastic handcuffs on him and four of his sons.

 

The soldiers refused his offer for keys to other rooms and cabinets, he said, and instead broke interior doors and closets.

 

In one cabinet, he said, they found an antique Arab dagger more than 100 years old with a handle of dark gray "very precious stone." The dagger had belonged to al-Fatlawi's grandfather, who gave it to his father, who eventually gave it to al-Fatlawi, he said.

 

"When I was a child, it was always in our house," he said. "You cannot put a price on it."

 

A soldier put the dagger in a plastic bag and carried it away without providing a receipt, al-Fatlawi said. Along with the dagger, he said, soldiers seized two rifles and a licensed pistol, a government truck and about $172 in cash.

 

After the last of his four sons was released three weeks later, al-Fatawi said, he tried to file a complaint at the convention center in the heavily guarded Green Zone of Baghdad, which houses the headquarters for the American-led coalition. He said he was told to go to an Army base on the southern edge of the city, and later sent somewhere else.

 

"After one year, they had lost all my files," he said.

 

Losing files is not uncommon in Iraq. Records from an Aug. 21, 2003, claim involving an automobile accident that killed one man and severely injured six others says that a military officer conducted an investigation but that the officer "lost the investigation."

 

Iraqi attorney Mohammed al-Saadi said one base lost 60 claims files when offices were moved, and theArmy asked all the families to resubmit the claims.

 

A July 1, 2004, letter al-Fatlawi has from Chief Warrant Officer Anton Streeter of the Foreign Claims Commission says, "Allow me to express my sympathy for the confiscation of your personal property."

 

The letter offered $1,000.

 

"I thought they would change people again and lose my file again, so I took the $1,000," said al-Fatlawi, adding he never saw the dagger again.

 

Two of his sons - one in high school and the other in college - failed their exams, in part because of the stress suffered from the raid and its aftermath, al-Fatlawi said, adding that he has suffered from hypertension since the raid. His son, who was responsible for watching the government-owned truck, might have to pay for it, he said.

 

"In the beginning, we thought they were liberators for the Iraqi people, and we were happy," al-Fatlawi said. "We thought there would be justice in Iraq after 35 years of injustice.

 

"Now there is no justice. Nothing has changed except for the faces."

 

Checkpoints: Clash of cultures

 

If there is a place that most exemplifies the problems plaguing the American-led occupation, it is the traffic-control checkpoints. Often little more than a group of Humvees in the middle of a road, checkpoints are used to secure an area or conduct spot searches of cars.

 

In 114 claims, the incident was described as happening at a checkpoint. The claims allege 39 shootings that left 12 dead and 28 injured.

 

Human rights groups say checkpoints are safer since early in the war, but problems persist.

 

Between Nov. 12, 2003, and Jan. 1, 2004, five people were shot at checkpoints in Mosul - three of them during an 11-day period. Another claim in Mosul, occurring during the same period, alleges someone was "shot in the leg while driving by U.S. forces."

 

Medina, the former assistant Army chaplain in Iraq, said many checkpoints were poorly marked and manned by soldiers who didn't understand the culture or have translators who could help them communicate with Iraqi citizens.

 

"Our soldiers would put their hands up as a sign to stop at the (checkpoints), but we didn't do our homework on how to deal with the Iraqi people," he said. "To them, putting your hand up was a gesture or greeting, so they would just keep approaching the soldiers in their cars.

 

"And a lot of soldiers would just open fire, and they killed a lot of innocent people. We just didn't do enough to study the culture of Iraqis."

 

Medina, whose twin brother was killed in Iraq last November, said soldiers sometimes were ordered to open fire on any vehicle that didn't stop.

 

"In one case, there was a father, mother and three children," said Medina, whose unit arrived shortly after the shooting. "They were shot many times. The car was full of blood. There was one kid alive. He was alive for a few hours before being pronounced dead in the hospital a few hours later... It was horrible."

 

Kelly Dougherty and Elizabeth Wisdorf, two members of a Colorado National Guard unit, said soldiers manning checkpoints from their unit were ordered by commanders to take money and other property from Iraqis.

 

"We would take things from them; we would take money in the beginning, which made no sense to me because we just overthrew their government, and they didn't have banks to put their money in, so they would carry it with them," Wisdorf said. "Our chain of command told us to do that because they felt the Iraqis ... they were terrorists."

 

Wisdorf said units frequently had no translators to help soldiers explain to bewildered and sometimes angry drivers what was happening.

 

"We had no way of communicating with the Iraqis," Wisdorf said. "Guns pointed was as much communication as we had with these people."

 

Both former soldiers were medics who had a few months each of lawenforcement training years earlier, and they didn't learn they were going to serve as military police officers in Iraq until just before they left to go overseas.

 

LOAD-DATE: October 30, 2004