The Measure of a Life, in Dollars and Cents

By Walter Pincus
Monday, June 18, 2007

What's an Iraqi life worth? How about an Iraqi car?

For the U.S. military in Iraq, it may be roughly the same.

A report released late last month by the Government Accountability Office examines the practices and rules guiding condolence payments that the U.S. military can distribute to families of Iraqi civilians killed "as a result of U.S. and coalition forces' actions during combat." These voluntary payments -- known as "solatia" payments -- can also cover injuries and loss or damage to property. They constitute "expressions of sympathy or remorse based on local culture and customs, but not an admission of legal liability or fault," according to the report.

The Pentagon has set $2,500 as the highest individual sum that can be paid. Most death payments remain at that level, with a rough sliding scale of $1,000 for serious injury and $500 for property damage. Beginning in April of last year, payments of up to $10,000 were possible for "extraordinary cases" but only with a division commander's authorization.

Despite Iraqi civilian deaths reaching tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, throughout the war, we are not talking big condolence payouts thus far. In 2005, the sums distributed in Iraq reached $21.5 million and -- with violence on the upswing -- dropped to $7.3 million last year, the GAO reported.

Commanders were first authorized to make such payments in September 2003, and payments were initially financed with money seized from Saddam Hussein and his family and colleagues. Now the payments come from the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), a U.S. fund designed to build goodwill among Iraqis through good works such as small-scale water and sewage projects.

The report, titled "The Department of Defense's Use of Solatia and Condolence Payments in Iraq and Afghanistan," offers a particularly coldblooded example of how payments are estimated, drawn from CERP's operating procedures: "Two members of the same family are killed in a car hit by U.S. forces. The family could receive a maximum of $7,500 in CERP condolence payments ($2,500 for each death and up to $2,500 for vehicle damage)."

In April 2006, "martyr payments" became permissible, covering the death of Iraqi army members, police officers or government civilians as a result of U.S. or coalition military actions.

"Each sector in Iraq contains unique challenges that influence the actual execution of the payment," said Col. Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, in response to questions from The Washington Post. He listed locations, terrorist activities, local politics and risk to recipients as factors.

The GAO found that wide discretion is given to commanders. A military unit provides a claim card to a victim or family member after an incident. That card is given to an Army judge advocate or a purchasing officer who determines if the incident occurred and whether it resulted from combat actions.

But if a noncombat accident takes place, such as a U.S. Army vehicle hitting and killing an Iraqi civilian as he crosses the street in Baghdad, the next of kin can file under the Foreign Claims Act. Payments awarded by the Foreign Claims Commission generally reach up to $100,000, according to the GAO.

A former Army judge advocate who served in Iraq from May 2003 to July 2004 has written that every Iraqi he spoke with on the issue expressed shock about this situation. Under the Foreign Claims Act, he wrote, "the full market value may be paid for a Toyota run over by a tank in the course of a non-combat related accident, but only $2,500 may be paid for the death of a child shot in the crossfire."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington, and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

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