(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - The price of an Iraqi life, for purposes of compensation for the families of civilians killed by Americans, can be as low as $500 and as high as $8 million. It depends on who does the assessment.
On the low end, $500 was paid to the brother of a man caught in a firefight outside the gate of his house.
The $8 million is what the Iraqi government is demanding for the families of each of the 17 people it said were killed when private security contractors guarding U.S. diplomats opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square on September 16.
In between those poles, payments are frequently in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. High-profile victims whose death might have an impact on U.S.-Iraqi relations command more.
Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s bodyguard, Raheem Khalif, for example.
He was shot dead last Christmas Eve by a drunken contractor of the U.S. private security company Blackwater, whose men were also involved in the September shooting. The incident raised fresh questions over the use of civilians in roles previously carried out by the U.S. military.
One of the most remarkable quotes from a U.S. official on conditions in Iraq, five years into the war, has come in an email discussing the size of compensation for the bodyguard.
Made available during a Congressional hearing early in October, the email said:
"The...Charge d’Affaires (acting ambassador) was talking some crazy sums at first. Originally, she mentioned $250k and then later on $100K...I think that a sum this high will set a terrible precedent.
"This could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future."
Excuse me? Suicide by provoking an American to shoot you?
Is there so little prospect, so little hope, so little confidence in the future, so few opportunities that the only way to provide long-term for a family’s future is through a U.S. compensation payment for your death?
The email was sent by a Special Agent of the Diplomatic Security Service in Baghdad after he discussed the matter of the dead bodyguard with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.
The desperation suggested in the notion of suicide-by-American is at odds with the official view of the Bush administration, which has been seeing slow but steady progress towards stability and reasons for Iraqis to hope for a brighter future.
In the case of the bodyguard, the State Department, for whom Blackwater works under a $600 million-plus contract, eventually suggested $15,000 but according to Blackwater’s chief executive, Erik Prince, the company actually paid $20,000.
Now, the widow wants more.
CONDOLENCE AND COMPENSATION
There is no structured procedure for making claims in cases involving armed American civilians.
No court, either in Iraq or in the U.S., has dealt with an Iraqi national seeking compensation for death from a U.S. private security contractor. The companies operate in a legal no-man’s land where they have been virtually immune from prosecution.
The U.S. military, in contrast, have dealt with compensation claims for more than half a century, under a 1942 law, the Foreign Claims Act.
It distinguishes between condolence payments, paid without recognition of fault "as an expression of sympathy and good will" and compensation, which acknowledges military wrongdoing. The $500 for the man shot outside his house was a condolence payment. (Such payments are usually limited to $2,500).
But even for outright compensation, the sums are modest by Western standards, according to documentation on hundreds of cases from Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. Army released to the American Civil Liberties Union recently.
One document lists $5,000 paid for a wrongful death and $5,200 for damage to the vehicle involved in the incident that caused the death. A human life worth less than a car.
"Iraqi blood has become the cheapest thing in Iraq," noted a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most respected Shiite religious leader.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants the price of Iraqi blood reviewed. The $8 million per person his government is demanding for the Blackwater victims dwarfs the "crazy sums" the Baghdad diplomat had suggested for settling the bodyguard case.
But the new demand is likely to go through the same process of severe shrinkage as the old.
If not, to follow the logic of the Baghdad email, there might be yet another complication in an already complex and dirty war — soldiers and contractors having to learn to spot Iraqi family fathers wishing to die for U.S. compensation. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)