US Army buys peace with compensation payments

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IN THE violence that erupted outside his house three months ago, Muthanna Saleh lost three things: his leg, his brother, and his grudging tolerance of US forces in his home town of Fallujah.

On that day in mid-April, American troops shot dead 17 Iraqis and wounded dozens of others as they protested at the soldiers refusal to vacate a nearby school. Muthanna was wounded, and his brother Walled killed as they attempted to drag some of the injured into his garden.

Nothing, he insists, will ever compensate him fully for that dreadful day.

But a surprise apology recently from the US army, together with $1,500 for his dead brother, and $500 for his lost leg, has certainly soothed his feelings somewhat. In a bid to stem the wave of revenge attacks that the school protest sparked, American forces in Fallujah have taken the unusual step of paying "blood money" to the families of those killed or injured. US compensation culture has joined forces with ancient Arab tribal custom, in the hope that putting a price on past wrongs can finally buy peace.

"All the money in the world cannot bring my brother back or my leg," said Muthanna, 41, taxi driver who now hobbles around on crutches. "But this is something - we did not expect it after the Americans were so vicious before."

The tactic is somewhat contentious, given the insistence by the US troops that they only opened fire during the school protest after being shot at first. But in the town that has come to symbolise the tensions between occupiers and occupied, it represents the first meeting of minds in months.

Since the payouts began the number of attacks on their troops has dropped for the first time.

Lieutenant Chris Haggard, of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, who is supervising the scheme, said: "There is an American law called the Foreign Claims Act, which covers damage caused by accidents or negligence involving US military forces abroad. Foreign nationals may receive compensation under this law if their claims are proven valid.

"Some of the locals interpret it as the ancient Muslim custom of the price of blood, although we don’t quite see it like that. But if it helps us, and shows them goodwill, then so be it."

The payments are one of several novel approaches that the US has taken recently to ease tensions in Fallujah, where more than a dozen US soldiers have been killed in attacks since the war officially ended. Soldiers doing house searches now knock politely first. Nearly $2 million has been dished out on civic projects. And the overall troop presence has been drastically reduced in favour of a 75-man local militia run by mayor Taha Bedawi, who enjoys US approval.

He originally suggested the compensation scheme, and, thanks partly to his standing, it was taken seriously rather than rejected out of hand.

"It is our tradition that if somebody is killed by someone from another tribe then that tribe must kill the killer, or pay some money as compensation," he said.

"We explained that to the Americans that was our custom, and they understood. Now things are starting to get better."

The scheme is administered by Lt Haggard from a small room in the mayoral building, one of the few places where US troops are still regularly seen in Fallujah nowadays. Each morning a small queue forms outside, some claiming compensation for property damage, others claiming injuries from accidents involving US vehicles.

Each one requires supporting witness statements and is assessed by a US military lawyer in Baghdad. The sum of money, however, is a lot less than that paid out between tribes for a death - normally at least $5,000.

The comparison is not lost on Muthanna, whose other brother Osama was also injured in the shootings. "I see this as a gift, not compensation," he said. "Everything we have received we have already spent on funeral costs and paying for operations for ourselves: if we had gone to government hospitals then we would just have died.

"Between us we used to care for 23 children and relatives - how will we do that now? We should get the same amount of money as families of US soldiers get when they die."

Then again, real peace gestures seldom leave either side completely happy. At the 3rd Cavalry base at Habaniya, just outside town, eight soldiers have died in attacks locally. "We are here to help these people, but I don’t agree with paying them compensation in these situations," said Staff Sgt Antone Reese. "Those soldiers in the protest were protecting their own lives.

"It’s part of the burden that our country carries out here," said Specialist Brian Lawless. "Other armies just wouldn't care."