By Stephen Grey, Falluja.
THE WAR for little Dunya Hamid began and ended in a warm afternoon last
autumn. She was playing with her sisters in a dusty palm grove when the
American army opened fire on her hamlet.
Just two years old, Dunya had no words to utter but ”mama”’ and ”dadda,”
when just after 4pm, the soldiers approached her village from two sides in
armoured Humvees cars. Dunya ran for safety but she was cut down, shot in
the head with a machine gun bullet before she could reach the back door of
the family’s squat four-bedroomed bungalow.
Her sister, Manal, aged seven, who was injured from shrapnel, recalled: “I
saw Dunya playing outside. When she heard the shooting she wanted to go
inside but then I saw her falling to the ground. Then I was hit. I didn’t
feel anything bu I saw my blood come out. We were very afraid.”
In the fast-moving pace of events in Iraq, Dunya’s death and the injuries of
four other children in the hamlet merited just a brief paragraph in
newspaper accounts of a bloody day of fighting between American forces and
guerrilla fighters. A day earlier, in the same town of Fallujah, US troops
also shot dead ten Iraqi policemen by mistake.
Yet for Dunya’s family the events of September 12 last year and the
perceived failure of US forces to investigate or compensate them for the
incident remain uppermost in their minds. Her case illustrates what many
Iraqis describe as a deepening sense of outrage at the failure of American
occupying forces to address the injustice of the innocent people who die or
are wounded in the crossfire of military operations.
Separating fact from fiction is difficult task in a town like Fallujah, a
town at the heart of violent resistance to American occupation of Iraq, and
where the soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, who now occupy the town, seem to
have few friends left.
Senior commanders admit that in places like Fallujah there is little
question of winning hearts and minds – what once was acronymed ‘Wham’ in
Vietnam. They would settle now for a sullen neutrality. They hope only to
prevent local citizens from lifting guns or launching grenades at them, and
to stop harbouring those that do.
But Dr Abdul Wahab, orthopaedic surgeon, at the general hospital in
Fallujah, said support for the resistance was very strong indeed. “Everyone
who works for the Americans are considered an enemy here.”
Everyone knew, he said, that when American troops are attacked they
responded by spraying fire in all directions around, with the inevitable
loss of life to innocent civilians.
Said Wahab: “When someone attacks the Americans, they shoot at random around
them. I know this is true because I have treated the casualties of this
policy. I have treated may be 15 children with injuries from bullets or
shrapnel in the last year.”
Dunya’s family say her death occurred.after resistance fighters detonated a
roadside bomb near the hamlet under an American convoy. Angered by the
attack, the US troops had retaliated by driving up to their homes and
opening fire from two directions. All those interviewed denied there was any
fire on US forces from their houses.
Although the US forces last week declined comment on the incident, accounts
from US officials differed from what the villagers said. They described the
firing on Dunya’s hamlet as a response to hostile fire from guerrillas
sheltering within its buildings.
But, as Dunya’s grandfather, Turki Abbas, pointed out that, whatever its
justification, the American fire was hardly accurate. Showing us around the
village, as he clutched amber prayer beads, he showed us a score of machine
gun rounds that had torn through the Brieze block walls of different
buildings. There were four more bullet holes through the metal door beside
which Dunya died.
“How can a two-year-old child be described as a supporter of the resistance?
How did she threaten any American?”: Abbas said. “I had such dreams for this
little child: just to live in peace and security and have a healthy life. We
are farmers and can ask for nothing more.”
Regardless of whether Dunya was killed by undisciplined random fire, as the
family allege, or caught in the crossfire of an actual engagement, it is
clear that Americans have done little to investigate the incident. An
official report reported compiled by a local police lieutenant, Bashar
Khadir, provided a detailed map of whether Dunya was killed, and showed the
bullet trajectories leading from American vehicles. A medical report was
attached that confirmed bullet injuries as the cause of death.
Khadir concluded his report by demanding compensation for the family and for
a full investigation by US authorities. Yet Dunya’s father, Hamid, says they
have heard no more. “We were told we would get compensation but they lied.
We have had nothing,” he said.
Marla Ruzicka, an American living in Baghdad who has founded a group called
the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (civic), argues that, at the
very least, US forces need to systematically pay out generous compensation
when they kill the innocent – and to properly investigate each and every
She said: “The Iraqis feel that American soldiers are operating with
impunity. It doesn’t send the right message at all when we need to show we
have different standards from other brutal regimes. It would really make
American lives safer in Iraq when we showed we cared too about Iraqi lives.”
Ruzicka’s campaign has been one of those that has helped America start a
limited programme to compensate for the first time the victims of so-called
Karin Tackaberry, an army lawyer with the 82nd Airborne, explained that
America was liable to pay out damages when caused by US negligence. But
these pay-outs, made under the Foreign Compensation Act, did not apply as
soon as any incident was declared as a combat operation.
“Roughly speaking when the bullets start to fly in both directions then
there is no legal right to compensation,” she said.
Instead the US has allotted its commanders a new discretionary budget to pay
out what amounts, in the Arab tradition, to so-called blood money and can be
used, with no admission of blame, to pay-out even for deaths or injuries
caused by crossfire in combat cases.
In the government offices in central Ramadi, another town in the Sunni
triangle that is also under 82 Airborne control, Tackaberry and her
assistants arrived last week with 90,000 dollars in cash to pay out on a
long list of damage claims.
Since last October, over 150 discretionary payments have been made in the
Ramadi area. Most amounted to pay-outs for traffic accidents, damage to
houses caused by off-target bombs or artillery, and to compensation for
wrongful arrest or loss of property. Others have been pay-outs for injury or
deaths: but, her staff explained, there was maximum pay out of 2500 dollars
for any death caused by US forces.
In a measure of the area’s insecurity and the difficulty of local people to
lodge their claims, the session was suspended for three hours after
Tackaberry’s convoy of vehicles was attacked with a roadside bomb as it
drove to the centre. One armoured vehicle was flung up into the air in a
cloud of black smoke and orange sparks, but no-one suffered serious injury.
Later, when the convoy reached the headquarters, heavy machine gun fire
could be heard in the background and the whole complex was sealed off.
“This compound has just come under attack. It seems an Iraqi policeman on
guard outside has been killed,” announced Tackaberry.
Despite the fighting outside, a handful of claimants did make it through the
police cordons to lodge claims or receive payouts. Allaway Rashid Abid, 42,
accepted a payment of 2500 US dollars for the destruction of his car by
Americans searching for weapons.
“If I get the money I will forgive them,” said Abid. “You know us Arab
people look for revenge but what can I do. You accept what you can.”
But his lawyer, Mohamed Mukhlif, who handles dozens of complaints from
Ramadi residents, said the Americans seemed more willing to pay out for
broken cars than for the civilians they killed. “For every family that
receives compensation for a death, there are ten that received nothing at
He said he handled one case when the Americans paid out 500 dollars to the
family of an un-armed un-uniformed civilian who was shot dead as he walked
down the street. Even the local tribal system of blood money, he said,
required at least 5000 dollars to be paid by one family to another as
retribution for any murder or wrongful death, “so the amount they pay out
here is considered shameful.”
Tackaberry said believed the payments could help to correct the idea that
American forces cared nothing for any damage they caused to local
communities but she said innocents would continue to die while the war
“There is a perception, a terrible perception, out there that we kill
innocent people. It’s not always completely true or completely false because
the truth is that the enemy operates and fires from the vicinity of innocent
people. We know that collateral damage happens.”
Elsewhere, US commanders defend their right to respond aggressively when
their forces feel themselves under attack.
Col Steve Russell, commander of the US forces in Saddam’s birth city of
Tikrit, which continues to remain largely hostile to US occupation, said his
soldiers initiated 40 per cent of contacts with the enemy. “The soldier has
the right to self defence. If he is under fire then he can use whatever
lethal force he needs to end the threat.”
Russell said there it was surprising there was not more collateral damage.
“Innocents are injured as a result of the immoral nature of our opponents.
They are lawless terrorists who try to mask themselves among the civilian
population. They use the innocents as shields for their attacks.”
Among Iraqis, however, soldiers like Russell have much work to do to
convince them that the lives of those innocent like Dunya Hamid are really a
concern for the average American soldier.