A martyr and more in his mother’s eyes

Times Staff Writers

What makes a martyr?

Batul Abdul Hussein thought her son, Wesam Saleh, was one. On Feb. 13, 2007, as U.S. and Iraqi troops began enforcing a new security plan to quell violence in Iraq, the 25-year-old policeman left for his night shift. He never made it home alive.

As his patrol rounded a curve in southwest Baghdad, Hussein said, it came under fire from U.S. forces who mistook the armed Iraqis rolling toward them in the dark for possible insurgents. The Americans took the wounded Saleh to the U.S.-run hospital in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, but he died six days later, his mother said, showing photocopies of hospital records and his death certificate.

Now Hussein, a widow whose home is a threadbare room with a concrete floor off a trash-strewn alley, feels lost in a bureaucratic abyss as she tries to get compensation.


Iraq’s Interior Ministry has denied Hussein so-called martyr payments because it says Saleh was killed by friendly fire rather than insurgents. It recommended she seek help from the United States.

A U.S. military judge advocate also rejected her claim. “There was no evidence that U.S. forces acted either negligently or wrongfully,” says the denial letter, dated July 5 and signed by a U.S. Army captain.

Yet her son gave his life protecting Iraq, Hussein said.

“In all the books of God, if someone is killed even by accident, their family should be compensated,” said Hussein, 57, clutching a pale pink folder containing documents about her son’s case. On the walls of her home are framed photographs of Saleh, who joined the police force in 2006.


Saleh was unmarried, so he always offered to ride in the front vehicle of police convoys, where it is most dangerous, Hussein said. That’s where he was when gunfire hit his patrol.

U.S. officials say the military strives to avoid civilian and friendly-fire casualties. They say intelligence and technology help alert forces to the presence of noncombatants during missions. They also rely on Iraqi security officials to notify them of Iraqi police and military patrols.

But errors and accidents occur, and the system for allotting compensation often fails.

About 60% of claims filed to the U.S. military in recent years, for losses that vary from wrecked cars to civilian lives, were rejected, according to military records. Of 7,103 Iraqi claims filed with the United States in fiscal 2007, 2,896 were approved for payment, and a total of $8.4 million was paid. The previous year, 9,257 claims were filed; 3,658 of them, totaling just over $13 million, were paid.


New law in the works

An official at the Interior Ministry said the Iraqi government decides on a case-by-case basis whether to provide martyr payments to families of police but that those killed in U.S. military action are not given such status. “We are currently pushing a law . . . to change this,” said the official, a lieutenant colonel who is not an authorized spokesman and refused to give his name.

The U.S. military said it could not provide the number of innocent Iraqis -- either civilians or members of security forces -- who had been killed by American forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Since October, it has confirmed at least 41 such deaths. They include two cases in February in which civilians who were members of U.S.-allied volunteer security forces were apparently mistaken for insurgents and shot.


The stew of formal and informal fighting forces in Iraq, combined with insurgents’ operations in civilian areas, presents extraordinary challenges for the Americans, said Navy Capt. Vic Beck, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

“The level of complexities can’t be overstated,” Beck said. “You’re literally fighting to ensure you and your fellow soldiers come out alive.”

In the aftermath of a violent encounter, troops rarely are in a position to immediately assess the outcome.

“By the time you come back and do the battle damage assessment, people have been there, they’ve moved things. It’s not like a crime scene where it’s all roped off and protected,” Beck said.


Differing stories

Rarely do the versions of events presented by witnesses, survivors and the military mesh. Even if there is no question who fired the shots, critics say, the U.S. program sets up logistical and legal barriers that work against claimants.

Ammar Mehdi Kadhim has been trying for months to file a claim based on a June 30 raid in which he says his mother, father and sister were shot dead by American forces. The military has said 26 militants were killed in the operation.

The first time Kadhim went to the Green Zone to submit a claim, he was turned back because he didn’t have two official ID documents to get past the checkpoint.


He returned recently with two IDs and made his way to the U.S.-run National Iraqi Assistance Center, the first stop in the process. An Iraqi working at the claims desk told him he should have brought a “claim card” from U.S. forces acknowledging their involvement in the incident.

Another Iraqi at the desk said his chances of getting U.S. compensation were virtually nil because his relatives’ death certificates said they had died in a terrorist attack, not in U.S. action.

Kadhim was told he should submit a claim after getting the death certificates amended and obtaining a claim card. But he was also warned that his chances of getting compensation were slim because of the burden of proof placed on him.

“I have to change the death certificates . . . and I have to get a badge from the Americans, which takes too long,” he said. “I did my best. I tried, but there is no hope.”


Jon Tracy, a former military judge advocate who processed claims in Iraq in 2003 and ’04, said the U.S. system makes unreasonable demands of people living in the chaos of a war zone. Tracy is now a lawyer for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Washington-based organization.

He cited the requirement that Kadhim present a claim card signed by a U.S. soldier. “That’s ridiculous, because most of the time units don’t stop, especially if shots are fired,” he said.

Tracy also said commissioners dismiss most claims by citing a “combat exclusion” clause in the Foreign Claims Act. The clause says damages need not be paid if the harm occurred during a combat operation. Commissioners may make exceptions if they find the military behaved negligently or wrongfully -- for example, by using excessive gunfire to stop a vehicle or firing indiscriminately into a home.

“The problem is most lawyers don’t do that,” Tracy said. “The analysis of most claims is, oh, shots were fired -- combat. There’s this presumption that exists, and most cases are denied because shots were fired.”


Hussein said she was stunned when her case was rejected, first by the Iraqis and then by the Americans.

For two months after Saleh’s death, Hussein was too overwhelmed to do anything. “I did not even cry,” she said.

Then she visited the Interior Ministry to collect her son’s belongings and was told that police killed by Americans are not considered martyrs. When she went to the Americans, they asked for the relevant documents to process her application for compensation.

Hussein was hopeful, she said, because of the sympathetic treatment she received from the troops involved in the shooting, the 1st Battalion of the Army’s 18th Infantry Regiment.


‘He asked for juice’

After the shooting, the battalion commander gave her his business card and the phone number of his Iraqi interpreter, which she photocopied and carries in her folder.

“I talked to the interpreter. He told me he [Saleh] was talking. He asked for juice,” she said, speaking hopefully as if it might bring him back to life. Arrangements were made for Hussein to visit her son in the hospital. Six hours after she left, he died.

The battalion commander, Lt. Col. George Glaze, has left Iraq and did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.


A military spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Maura A. Gillen, reiterated that compensation was denied because no negligence was found on the part of the U.S. military, and she expressed hope that the Iraqi government would provide for Hussein.

At the same time, she added in an e-mailed statement, “We’re concerned that this Iraqi mother has not had resolution to the death of her son.” --

Times staff writers Said Rifai and Saad Khalaf contributed to this report.