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US Pays Millions To Civilian Victims Of Collateral Damage

Washington (UPI) Dec 20, 2005
Legislation promoted by a slain American aid worker and passed by lawmakers at the weekend requires the U.S. military to report to Congress about what information it collects on civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The amendment to the 2006 Defense Authorization Act sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., highlights an issue that U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka made her life's work before she was slain by a suicide bomber in Baghdad on April 16.

"Systematically recording and publicly releasing civilian casualty numbers will assist in helping the victims who survive to piece their lives back together," wrote Ruzicka shortly before she was killed.

"A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family."

President Bush put the issue center-stage last week, when, answering questions following a speech, he said that the number of Iraqis who had died in the war was "30,000, more or less."

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a non-profit founded by Ruzicka last year, welcomed the president's comments. "The official recognition of and compassionate response to civilians injured and killed due to U.S. military action is critical to building stability in Iraq," said retired Col. Jay Parker, a member of the group's board. "With this important public statement ... the President correctly highlights this critical element of our mission."

White House staff said later Bush was citing media reports, which put the figure at between 27,000 and 30,000, not an official government estimate.

The 27,000 to 30,000 range cited by staff matches exactly a widely quoted figure for civilian casualties compiled by an anti-war non-profit called the Iraq Body Count.

"Civilian casualties are the most unacceptable consequence of all wars," says the group on its Web site. "We believe it is a moral and humanitarian duty for each such death to be recorded, publicized, given the weight it deserves and, where possible, investigated to establish whether there are grounds for criminal proceedings."

The group's estimates are based on media accounts, which experts say can under-count deaths in the chaos of war. Other estimates, including a tendentious one based on statistical projections of mortality and published in the medical journal Lancet, put the civilian death toll as high as 100,000.

The Pentagon has always maintained that it does not keep a tally of civilians killed or injured in U.S. military operations. But military officials say that troops are generally required to fill out some kind of incident report if they shoot a non-combatant, and that such reports could be tabulated with relative ease.

Anecdotal reports, including one from Ruzicka herself, suggest that, in some areas, commanders already keep a running tally.

Now the new law will enable lawmakers and campaigners alike to gauge the accuracy of such reports and gain an insight into what kind of records the military keeps to backstop the compensation schemes it runs.

The posthumous victory is by no means the first for the plucky California blond, who bemused the nation's straight-laced capital by calling everyone "Dude," and arriving at meetings on roller-blades.

For three years running, Ruzicka, who was just 28 when she was killed, worked with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to put money in the annual Foreign Operations spending bill -- providing a total of nearly $40 million dollars for individuals and communities in Afghanistan and Iraq that suffered what the military calls collateral damage.

In the latest bill, passed over the summer, the civilian assistance program was named the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund, in her honor.

A Leahy aide told United Press International that about half the amount appropriated -- $25 million for Iraq and $13 million for Afghanistan -- has been doled out so far. The money is spent by the U.S. Agency for International Development in collaboration with relief groups and other non-governmental organizations.

The funds are used to provide in-kind assistance, such as medical care, equipment to start a business, or the replacement of damaged or destroyed property like homes and schools, said the Leahy aide, Tim Rieser.

And millions of dollars in cash have also been paid out by the military, under U.S. regulations that give unit commanders access to a special fund to "respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirements."

In many parts of Iraq, the U.S. military uses these funds to run programs generally paying out up to $2,500 per victim to the families of those killed, and smaller amounts to those who are injured or have property destroyed or who were detained.

The fund, the Commanders' Emergency Response Program, was authorized by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2003, initially with cash seized or captured by the U.S. military and money from the United Nations' Development Fund for Iraq -- oil revenues which the provisional authority administered as the occupying power, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen.

CERP, as the fund is called by the military, was worth $340 million last year -- $160 million of it seized or captured in Iraq. The remaining $180 million was in the 2004 war supplemental appropriation. This year, the U.S. congress has appropriated $854 million, according to Pentagon Spokeswoman Lt. Col. Roseann Lynch, who did not say whether Iraqi or U.N. money would continue to be spent by CERP.

But the discretionary "condolence payments," as the military calls them, are only one of a wide variety of small dollar-value projects on which the cash is spent -- including a shopping list of infrastructural and civic repairs and improvements -- and no breakdown was available.

The military has traditionally been chary of anything that smacks of compensation, because of concerns about the potentially vast liability that would be assumed if such payments could be inferred to recognize a right to recompense for any civilian impacted by its operations.

"This system of sympathy payments is designed to avoid any assumption of legal liability by the military," said Rieser, who has been briefed by the Pentagon on the program. "But in doing so they are acknowledging that a mistake was made, that harm was done, and that compensation is warranted."

Rieser said the payments were "completely discretionary," and added that "the evidentiary bar (for compensation) seems to vary depending on the U.S. military commander in the field.

"That is one of its weaknesses."

Rieser said that the payments were generally made after some effort to corroborate the applicant's account and establish how the death had happened. "They are not just handing out money to anyone who asks for it," he said.

In Baghdad, Ruzicka assisted families in negotiating the application process for both cash and in-kind compensation, which she said could be equally daunting for stricken relatives.

She was on her way to a meeting about such a case when she was caught up in a suicide car bomb attack against a U.S. convoy on Baghdad's notorious airport road.

Her supporters say Ruzicka would have been proud of her latest victory.

"It was hard to say no to Marla," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., once said of her lobbying skills. "Heck, it was all but impossible to say no."

Perhaps it still is.

Source: United Press International

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