by Peyman Pejman
(IPS) BAGHDAD --
troops in Iraq stay on the ready to face fire from snipers, but they were not ready for this one.
Twenty-six-year-old Californian Marla Ruzicka has led her non-governmental organization into Baghdad to make the U.S. forces accountable for the suffering they have brought on civilians.
Ruzicka, founder and director of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), says she wants the U.S. to show a clear humanitarian response to the situation following their military actions.
"It is a pretty apolitical objective," she told IPS in Baghdad. "You could be for or against the conflict in Iraq but the issue is that civilians should not be harmed in a conflict. We see it all too often that they are, and we are trying to hold the U.S. and other governments accountable."
The U.S. administration in Baghdad has offered no response to her moves.
Ruzicka and a team of 150 Iraqi volunteers she has gathered have been carrying out surveys across Iraq to assess the extent of civilian casualties. CIVIC has set up offices in several cities from the southern city Basra up north to the capital, Baghdad. She plans to soon to hire staff in northern parts of the country.
The team members are working with whatever information they can find. They interview family members, relatives, hospital staff and doctors about those who died, and the circumstances of the death. Ruzicka plans to issue a report only after the investigations are complete. The team is looking at civilian war casualties, not at victims of Saddam's regime earlier.
Ruzicka's work is not purely academic. It is required by U.S. law, she says. The $78.5 billion emergency spending bill passed by the U.S. Congress in April requires that the U.S. government "provide appropriate assistance" to Iraqi civilians who suffered losses in the war.
The Pentagon has set aside $2.5 billion for reconstruction projects. But it has not been decided how much money will be spent on compensation, and where it will come from.
Ruzicka, who has been working with the staff of Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat) who sponsored the resolution, said she does not expect compensation by way of cash payment, but as assistance for matters such as health bills and rebuilding schools and other damaged buildings.
Before any kind of compensation can be forthcoming, Ruzicka and her team are working to collect accurate data on how many Iraqi civilians were killed, where and under what circumstances.
Given the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, one tricky point might be to determine beyond doubt which victim was civilian and who was military personnel.
"It just requires a little bit of investigation," Ruzicka says. "The hospitals keep a record who was a civilian or who was a military person. I believe the doctors kept accurate records. We can also go to the doctors and they will tell us the truth."
The CIVIC team is doing more than that, she says. "We are going to the families. We are going to their homes. You speak to their neighbors. You get a sense for who they are. It is not too difficult. It is not hard and the Pentagon should be doing it themselves as well."
The Pentagon has so far adamantly refused to carry out its own investigation into how many civilians died in the coalition attacks. Unofficial estimates have put the range between 5,000 to 10,000 civilians and as many as 75,000 Iraqi military personnel.
CIVIC received a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to carry out its work for the next three months. USAID is the official U.S. agency that will ultimately be responsible for dispersing funds allocated for compensation to civilians, and for related support projects. Many of the independent agencies engaged in relief work are staying clear of the USAID efforts.
While a full implementation of the congressional mandate clearly depends on coming up with indisputable civilian casualty figures, Ruzicka says the extent of civilian and human suffering is not a numbers game.
"Everyone is fixated on the number," she says. "We are just assisting in the overall reconstruction effort and we believe civilians need assistance when they are harmed in conflict."
Whether Ruzicka's will succeed in her self-assigned mandate of twisting the U.S. government's arms into righting at least some of the wrong remains to be seen.
This is the second time Congress has passed a law requiring the U.S. government to assist civilians harmed in U.S.-led military conflicts. The last time was after the conflict in Afghanistan. Ruzicka says the Afghans have received very little money, and Congress has not demanded further action.
"But Afghanistan was a different case," she says. "There was limited amount of money allocated and there were a limited number of NGOs who wanted to work there, or had the capacity to. At least there are clear roads in Baghdad."
July 1, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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