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The Price of One Iraqi Life (cont’d)

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‘Respect and sympathy’

When Maj. Gen. David Petraeus was still commander of the 101st Brigade in Mosul, he used millions in CERP funds for much publicized rebuilding of schools and hospitals. “Money is the most powerful weapon we have,” Petraeus said at the time.

In Iraq, condolence payments are a cultural norm, says Kornacki. When a car collision results in a death, for example, two sheiks will negotiate a nominal payment for funeral expenses that the party at fault will pay.

Osman Abdel Karim Hussein, 36, mayor of Adwar – a small city in central Iraq, about 10 miles south of Tikrit – is from a prominent tribal family in Salah ad-Din. He says tribal law traditionally arbitrates all conflicts before Iraqi law enforcement or courts are involved.

In the U.S. program, when soldiers kick in the wrong door or shoot the wrong person, they leave a claim card for damages, Fondow says. Local sheiks often provide background information as to the character and allegiance of those making the claims.

“If it’s not a ‘target hit,’ more than likely it will be a condolence payment,” Fondow says. “If family members were not on the ‘black list’ [those wanted by coalition forces], it will be a payment.”

Any payment must follow the chain of command to the brigade commander. If the paralegal recommends a payment of more than $2,500 – in the case of multiple damages or deaths – the case goes to the division level to be approved.

“Iraqis prefer respect and sympathy versus $2,500 thrown at them,” Kornacki says. “We’ll explain why, if we won’t pay.”

The most difficult part of the job, Fondow says, is investigating legitimate claims when there are so many fraudulent ones. In a case from a few years ago, U.S. forces suspected that insurgents who had fired on them earlier in the week had later tried to file damage claims for vehicles destroyed when troops had returned fire.

Fondow, who is on his third deployment in Iraq, says that in cases when a death occurs, it’s always more complicated. Turning down a legitimate claim opens the risk that family members may turn to insurgents for revenge.

“If they’re trying to feed their children,” he says, “the claims mission is very important. And equally important, is the level of respect it shows.”

James Foley, a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, is a freelance journalist. In 2009, he embedded with the U.S. military's 4-4th Infantry division and 1-10th Mountain division in the Afghanistan provinces of Nuristan, Nangahar and Kunar. The previous year he embedded in Iraq with the the 101st Airborne Division. To read Foley's blog, visit AWorldOfTroubles.com.

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