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Iraq Civilian Claims Process as ''Kafkaesque''

Human Rights Groups Denounce Civilian Claims Process as ''Kafkaesque''

Report by Report

WASHINGTON ( -- Two human rights groups have issued a searing indictment of the U.S. military's system for compensating Iraqi civilians victimized by American troops.

In a joint report released Jan. 10, Occupation Watch and the National Association for Defense of Human Rights in Iraq (NADHRI) accused the U.S. military of ignoring "civilian needs and human rights" by refusing to compensate Iraqi civilians mistakenly injured or killed during combat situations, and concluded that the ineffective nature of the claims process emboldens U.S. troops to act with impunity.

At particular issue is a bureaucratic claims filing process described as "Kafkaesque in nature," where many Iraqis walk miles to their nearest Civilian Military Operations Center (CMOC), submit to personal searches (in this report, all searches were conducted by male soldiers) and wait in endless lines for hours outdoors just to set up their first appointment.

"Our intention in describing the CMOCs is to explain the humiliation, confusion and Kafkaesque nature of trying to file a claim," wrote the authors. "Iraqis approach the situation with resignation, knowing that the deck is stacked against them before they even begin. For a lot of them, the answer will only be a bureaucratic smile and nothing more."

Compounding the situation is the lack of an Arabic copy of FCA procedures, CMOC's policy of sending replies to claimants written in English, verbal settlements subsequently lacking documentation needed to file an appeal, and most irrationally to the authors, the coalition's policy of keeping the official rules of engagement secret:

"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."

Under the Foreign Claims Act (FCA), Iraqis are entitled to compensation for property loss, personal injury or death caused by U.S. troops in certain situations. Particularly relevant to Iraqi civilians, a claim may only be allowed if "it did not arise from action by an enemy or result directly or indirectly from an act of the armed forces of the United States in combat," as the statute mandates in sec. 2734 of the US Code.

In attempting to define a combat situation for Iraq, deaths or injuries occurring before President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1 are ineligible for compensation. FCA also only awards claimants "determined by the commission or by the local military commander to be friendly to the United States," thus excluding not only known resistance members, but suspected resistance members and possibly civilian protesters from redress. Victims of munitions detonated after May 1 but dropped during the war (the report notes cluster bombs) also appear ineligible for compensation.

Lawyers from NADHRI and Occupation Watch workers accompanied Iraqis in Baghdad through the claims process. According to a statement by Occupation Watch, over 200 claims were filed and none received compensation.

The first half of the report details their experiences at four of the city's 12 CMOC offices, where Iraqis file claims to be determined by a military judge advocate. The report notes that CMOCs don't have enough judges, files are frequently lost, cases postponed and claimants treated with indifference at best.

The second half documents several compensation cases, including the seizure of documents and valuables, which cannot be reclaimed without proof of ownership, accidents with military vehicles, destructive and degrading house searches where arrests are made even if no weapons are found, a case where Iraqis were shot, beaten and/or arrested when soldiers nearby apparently mistook a heated neighborhood argument for resistance activity, and Iraqis killed or injured by U.S. troops firing randomly in response to guerilla attacks.

In one particularly disturbing account, after U.S. troops (reacting to an attack as they traveled along a Baghdad highway) mistakenly killed a pharmaceutical salesman waiting for a taxi, the unit involved initially tried to send his 72 year-old father home in a cab with the body. After being ordered to return the two, the unit then attempted to unload them at the nearest intersection but the father persisted.

The report describes what followed:

"He insisted and the unit agreed on the condition he run in front of the truck -- a human shield." Still, the unit refused to drive down the road leading to his house. Neighbors helped carry the body the rest of the way.

None of the claimants have received redress beyond a $2,500 "solace payment." (According to a Nov. 26 report in the Guardian, UK, such payments often require a signature absolving the claimant's rights to proper compensation.) Some of these claims were denied; others are pending; the file for a 24 year-old woman, killed by a Humvee as she crossed a street, was lost. The soldiers involved with the pharmaceutical salesman changed their story, first claiming he was carrying a pistol, then that he was in the car with the two attackers (who were apprehended on the scene). Despite that a conflicting account by eyewitnesses was backed by pathological and forensic evidence, the case was denied. Soldiers were working under the rules of engagement in a combat situation.

Note: The Joint Report on Civilian Casualties and Claims Related to U.S. Military Operations can be read at and relies on information gathered from an October 2003 report from Human Rights Watch entitled, "Hearts and Minds." Read that report at:

***************** correspondent Lisa Ashkenaz Croke drafted this report.

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