Marines Walk Softly and Carry a Big Checkbook

May 23rd, 2004 - by admin

Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times – 2004-05-23 08:04:34

AL BO ALI DAKEL, Iraq (May 14, 2004) — In accordance with the brutal accounting of modern combat, cash payments were made Thursday to people in this small village who suffered during recent fighting between US Marines and insurgents in nearby Fallouja.

The village leader received $15,000 on behalf of residents in compensation for dead livestock, uprooted trees, damaged fields and other losses. The Marines tried to bargain him down to $10,000, but he stood firm.

The son of a man killed by gunfire while driving in a battle zone received $2,500. And a man who said his 7-year-old daughter was killed as she tended the family’s sheep also received $2,500.

Now that the fighting between Marines and insurgents has tapered off in the area, the US military is attempting to make amends with noncombatants who suffered. The Americans hope cash will win friends and help bring peace in this part of the volatile Sunni Triangle.

Under Marine rules, a payment for a death goes directly to the family. Payments for community losses can be funneled through an elder, sheik or village leader.

$2,500 for a Daughter’s Death
“I know we cannot replace your loss, but we would like to offer a small apology in the form of $2,500 so we can move on in friendship,” Capt. Kevin Coughlin, judge advocate general for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, told the man who said his daughter had been killed.

“I accept your apology,” said Saady Mohamed Abdala.

Whether his daughter was killed by fire from Marines or insurgents — or whether the man even had a daughter — was not entirely clear.

“There’s really no way to verify these accounts,” Coughlin said. “It’s really irrelevant. In making these payments, the US is not taking responsibility for the loss, only offering an apology for a loss that occurred as a result of combat operations.”

With a Marine disburser carrying a satchel with more than $80,000, Coughlin and a civil affairs team spent the afternoon combing rural villages just north of Fallouja, where Marines battled insurgents for weeks until handing over security in the city to an Iraq army unit early this month. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed.

Under Marine Corps rules, the top payment a battalion can make for the loss of a family member is $2,500. There is no limit to the amount that can be paid for loss of possessions and livelihood, but the $15,000 paid to village leader Almas Tirkeq was considered on the high side.

That’s a lot of cash to average Iraqis, in a land where unemployment is high, a private in the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps makes about $60 a month and a colonel less than $200.

Compensation for Lost Trees, Animals and Farmland
Tirkeq, a large, ebullient man with a wide grin and ingratiating manner, had come prepared with an itemized list of losses, including two cows, five sheep, two donkeys, seven trees, several buildings and acres of farmland in this village of several thousand person.

“I hope this will better the lives of him and his people and we will be able to continue to work together,” Coughlin told an interpreter, who passed on the words to Tirkeq.

“This area was neglected by the old regime, and we consider what you are doing a sign of friendship,” Tirkeq replied. “Thank you, thank you.”

Tirkeq received the money on behalf of the village with the understanding that he would make sure residents who suffered losses are compensated. By making the payment in public, Marines hoped to ensure that he does.

Proof needed for payment Thursday was minimal: the word of village leaders, a story that seemed plausible, some face-to-face contact for reassurance.

“We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt,” said Marine Capt. Steve Coast, head of a civil affairs team.

The benefit of the doubt was needed most in the case of the man who said his daughter had been killed. Early in the discussions, villagers sought compensation for the man, who wasn’t present. A resident was sent to fetch him, but returned alone. The Marines refused to pay.

Then, as the Marines were preparing to leave, a man approached Coughlin and, through the village leader, announced he was the father of the dead child. “Weren’t you here the entire time?” Coughlin asked, in a slightly incredulous tone.

“No, no, no,” Tirkeq said. “He is my friend. He just walked up here. He is the father.”

Coughlin quickly polled other Marines and Westerners standing in the dusty courtyard near the chickens, cows, donkeys and sheep. “Did anybody see him before this?” he asked.

When the village leader had first discussed the dead child, there was a reference to a 6-year-old boy; the man identified as the father said the child was a 7-year-old girl. No account was made of the discrepancy.

In the end, the Marines took Tirkeq and the man at their word.

The outreach method for payments being practiced in the village is unusual. Most of those who say they lost relatives or property will be required to work through the Fallouja mayor’s office; their claims will be vetted by an Iraqi judge before being presented to the Marines.

Payments Intended to Buy Villagers’ Loyalty
But the Marines have lavished extra attention on the villages around Fallouja. Although US combat units have largely withdrawn from the city, Marines are still searching for insurgents and weapons smugglers in the outlying areas. Friendship with residents out here has a strategic value.

Marines believe the villages to have been neutral territory during the fight, with few of the area’s young men joining the insurgency. Although the brunt of the fighting took place inside the city limits, there were skirmishes in the countryside, including nightly ambushes, which the Marines blame in part on “foreign fighters” from outside Iraq.

The village leader reminded Coughlin that residents had helped Marines when one of their tanks became bogged in the mud. “We are a peaceful village,” he insisted.

The 1st Marine Regiment recently received $2.7 million to pay for structural damage done by the fighting. Commanders also can take money from their own budgets. Payments for deaths come from the Marine Corps’ operations and maintenance budget.

Bahjat Ali Abed, a sad-eyed man in his 30s, said his father, Ali Abed Farham, was killed while driving near the Fallouja train station, a site of numerous skirmishes. He said the Marines later searched the slain man’s car for weapons but found none.

On the hood of a mud-colored Humvee, as a curious crowd of men from the village pressed forward, Coughlin asked Abed to sign a document and offered an apology. And he offered a personal word, apparently trying to reach out to the Iraqi.

“I too lost my father not long ago,” Coughlin said.

Abed did not reply but stepped back into the crowd, carefully counting 25 crisp $100 bills.