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WikiLeaks Confirms Shocking Civilian Death Toll—But US Has Been Paying Off Victims' Families for Years | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

WikiLeaks Confirms Shocking Civilian Death Toll—But US Has Been Paying Off Victims' Families for Years

With the latest massive release of documents via WIkiLeaks, the media is abuzz with shocked reactions to the new revelations about the civilian death toll in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, now revised upward to over 115,000 (and that's just the documented number). But no one paying even casual attention to this long-running catastrophe should have been surprised, let alone shocked.

It's true that numbers and incident reports have been hard to get—and that's the value of that aspect of the latest from WikiLeaks—but details about tragic incidents have filtered out before, most notably in releases forced out by legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. Many of the earlier reports only emerged out because of probes into the massive cash payments (some of it from sachels lugged around Iraq for just this purpose) to victims' families by the US military, a custom known as "solatia."

I've followed the solatia angle for years, and in wake of the WikiLeaks release on Friday, you may find my report for Editor & Publisher back in April, 2007, highly relevant. It addresses questions, based on incident reports, such as: What price do we place on the life of a 9-year-old boy, shot by one of our soldiers who mistook his book bag for a bomb satchel? Would you believe $500? And when we shoot an Iraqi journalist on a bridge we shell out $2500 to his widow—but why not the measly $5000 she had requested?

The WikiLeaks documents present an opportunity to fact-check some of the many solatia claims denied for lack of evidence or our claim that we were not at fault. For example, here's one case from the solatia papers that I previously  cited:  

"Claimant alleges that on or about 24 February 2005, he was riding in a mini-bus with his nine-year-old son on his lap when Coalition Forces fired a round into the bus. The round allegedly hit his son in the head, causing the son's death.   Xxxxx alleges that some Americans came to the hospital and apologized. He also states that one of the HMMWV's had "32" on the side. Claimant has enclosed an autopsy report.

"Allow me to express my sympathy for your loss, however, in accordance with the cited references and after investigating your claim, I find that your claim is not compensable for the following reason: In your claim you failed to provide suflicient evidence that US Forces and not someone else is responsible for your damages. Accordingly, your claim must be denied."

Now I've found this incident report in the new WikiLeaks report for that same date in Baghdad and listed as "friendly" fire (meaning in this case on civilians). It sounds something like the incident above, and if a match clearly gives lie to our claim to not be involved.

Here's my 2007 article with more.

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The most revealing new information on Iraq—guaranteed to make readers sad or angry, or both—is found not in any press dispatch but in a collection of several hundred PDFs posted on the Web this week.

Here you will find, for example, that when the US drops a bomb that goes awry, lands in an orchard, and does not detonate —until after a couple of kids go out to take a look—our military does not feel any moral or legal reason to compensate the family of the dead child because this is, after all, broadly speaking, a "combat situation."

Last June, the Boston Globe and The New York Times revealed that a local custom in Iraq known as "solatia" had now been adapted by the US military—it means families receive financial compensation for physical damage or a loss of life. The Globe revealed that payoffs had "skyrocketed from just under $5 million in 2004 to almost $20 million last year, according to Pentagon financial data."

In a column at that time, I asked: How common is the practice? And how many unnecessary deaths do the numbers seem to suggest?  It's necessary to ask because the press generally has been denied information on civilian killings and, in recent years, it has become too dangerous in much of Iraq for reporters to go out and investigate shootings or alleged atrocities.

Now we have more evidence, thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) request for files on payments by the military. The FOIA request produced 500 case studies, which deserve broad attention.

An Army spokesman told the New York Times that the total payments so far had reached at least $32 million. Yet this figure apparently includes only the payments made in this formal claim process that requires offiical approval. The many other "solatia" or "condolence payments" made informally at a unit commander's discretion are not always included.

The New York Times comments today: "There is no way to know immediately whether disciplinary action or prosecution has resulted from the cases. Soldiers hand out instruction cards after mistakes are made, so Iraqis know where to file claims. ..."

Exploring the case reports quickly turns disturbing. They often include the scrawled claims by a victim's family member detailing a horrific accidental or deliberate killing (all names blacked out) and then a ruling by a US Army captain or major with the Foreign Claims Commission.

Occasionally the officer orders a payment, although it can still make you scream, as for example: "Claimant alleges that her two brothers were returning home with groceries from their business, when US troops shot and killed them, thinking they were insurgents with bombs in the bags. I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $5,OOO."

More often the officer denies the claim due to alleged lack of evidence, or threatening behavior by the deceased (usually just failing to stop quickly enough while driving) or the death occurring in some sort of vague combat situation. Many of the denials seem arbitrary or unfair, particularly when the only reason cited is a "combat exemption"—as in the case of the dead kid in that orchard.

Then there's this example:

"Claimant's son and a friend were fishing, in a small boat, 15 kilometers north of Tikrit on the Tigres river at 2200 hours on 31 March 2005.... US Forces helicopters were flying overhead, like they usually did and there were no problems.

"A US Forces HMMWV patrol pulled up to the beach near where they were fishing. The patrol had spotted and destroyed a boat earlier in the evening that had an RPG in it. They set off an illumination round and then opened fre. The claimant's only son was shot and killed. His friend was injured, but managed to get the boat to the other side of the river. At the small village across the river they received medical help and were taken to the hospital. But it was too late for the claimant's son.

"The claimant and his son were huge supporters of democracy and up to this day held meetings and taught there friends about democracy. The claimant provided two witness statements, medical records, a death certificate, photographs and a scene sketch, all of which supported his claim.

"Opinion: There is sufficient evidence to indicate that US Forces intentionally killed the claimant's son. Unfortunately, those forces were involved in security operations at the time. Therefore, this case falls within the combat exception."

Sometimes the Army officer, perhaps feeling a bit guilty for his ruling – or the whole war – authorizes a small payment in "condolence" money, which does not require admitting any wrongdoing on our part. One of the PDFs notes that a US army memo states a maximum condolence payment scale: $2,500 for death, $500 for property, $1,000 for injury.

One payment noted in a report was a little more generous, but loss of property was compensated but not loss of life. The incident involved two fisherman in Tikrit. They tried to appear non-threatening to an American helicopter overhead, holding up their fish "to show they meant no harm,” said the report. One was killed anyway. The Army refused to pay for the killing, ruling that it was “combat activity,” but approved $3,500 for a boat, net and cellphone, which all drifted away and were stolen.

To give you more of the flavor, here are some excerpts (with a few typos corrected).
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Claimant filed a claim for $5,500 on 3 Sept. 2005.

Facts: Claimant alleges that a CF [coalition force] dropped a bomb in his orchard. The bomb allegedly did not explode upon impact. Claimant's son went to investigate and was killed when the UXO detonated. Claimant's cousin was seriously injured in the explosion. A couple of hours later, CF allegedly took the body and Claimant to LSA Anaconda for medical treatment.   In support of their claims, the Claimants have offered witness statements, medical records from LSA Anaconda, and police and judicial reports.

Opinion: Under AR 27-20, paragraph 10-3, Claims arising "directly or indirectly" from combat activities of the US. Armed Forces are not payable. AR 27-20 defines combat activities as "Activities resulting directly or indirectly from action by the enemy, or by the US Armed Forces engaged in armed conflict, or in immediate preparation for impending armed conflict." Here, an airstrike clearly constitutes combat activity. While unfortunate, this claim is precluded from compensation under the combat exception.

Recommendation: The claim is denied.
***

On 11 April 2005, Claimant's father was allegedly killed by CF forces near the Samarra Museum.  Claimant says that his father was deaf and would not have heard danger nearby. The claimant did not personally witness the shooting and relies solely on eyewitnesses. Eye witnesses related that victim was shot by CF forces. The Claimant does not know if his father was shot by CF forces responding to an AIF attack, or whether CF fired directly on his father.

The claimant presented a claim in the amount of $4,000 on 21 November 2005.   RECOMMENDATION: this claim be denied

*.

Dec. 5 2005:

Claimant alleges that on the above date at the above mentioned location, the child was outside playing by their gate and a stray bullet from a US soldier hit their son in the head and killed him. The US soldiers went to the boy's funeral and apologized to the family and took their information to get to them, but never did. The child was nine years old and their only son.

I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $4,OOO.OO.
***

 Incident occurred Jan. 6, 2005 at a bridge near Haifa Street

Claimant alleges that her husband, who was working as a journalist, was walking across the bridge when he was shot and killed by US troops. She has documentation from CA confirming that US. troops were in the area at that time. Also, a medical report is attached stating that the round that killed the victim was a 5.56mm round. The claimant has submitted sufficient evidence.

I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $2,500.00.  (She had asked for $5000) 

***

 

On 11 April 2005, at about 11:30 am, Claimant's 8 year old sister, xxxx was allegedly killed by CF forces near the Al Khatib Secondary School, Samarra.    xxxx says that his sister was playing near the school and was shot by CF. Deceased's death certificate ... she was killed by gunfire. The claimant did not personally witness the shooting and relies solely on eye witnesses. Eye witnesses related that victim was shot by CF forces by a "random shot." During the interview, it was impossible to clarify what the claimant meant by a "random shot." A SIGACTS investigation revealed no activity or incidents in Samarra on that date.

RECOMMENDATION: Based upon the investigation by this FCC, it is reasonable to conclude that the CF activity can be characterized as combat activity. I recommend this claim be denied.

***

June 17, 2005

Claimant alleges that on the above date at the above mentioned location, his brother xxxxx was traveling in his car with rugs that he was taking to a rug store to sell. He was shot by US soldiers, and the rugs and cash on his possession were never recovered...and his body left there.

I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $3,000.00
**

April 23, 2006, Samarra

Claimant alleges that Coalition Forces fired upon his two sons as they were leaving the market. The claimants sons waived their shirts and their underwear as a sign of peace. The claimant provided death certificates, legal expert and witness statements to substantiate the claim.

Opinion: There is not enough evidence to prove the claim.  Recommendation: The claim is denied.

A new edition of Greg Mitchell's award-winning book "The Campaign of the Century: Upton SInclair RAce for Governor and the Birth of Media Politics" has just been published.

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