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updated 5/19/2004 2:45:37 PM ET 2004-05-19T18:45:37

At the Iraqi Assistance Center, in the bowels of coalition headquarters in Baghdad, a dozen Iraqis clutching cardboard files are waiting to present their compensation cases.

Lefta Lalloum Allawi has traveled from Diwaniya — again. He claims his house was destroyed by U.S. rocket fire in March. His family of eight is living in a tent. Hussein Khalifa Amir is trying to claim for the death of his son who was killed playing with ammunition in a deserted armored personnel carrier in Baghdad.

He says local people asked the U.S. military to clear the carrier but they did not and Dhia, his son aged 13, died.

Waiting in the same line is Samia Fahd Mubarak, a middle-aged black-robed woman whose face is etched with blue Bedouin tattoos. She has come to ask about compensation for her two cows, one of which was killed and the other mortally injured when U.S. soldiers opened fire on a street in Sadr City on the night of April 27.

Far from the dramatic, televised fighting in Najaf and Falluja, more mundane but brutal events such as these are having a corrosive effect on Iraqi opinion. Throughout the guerrilla conflict, coalition troops continue to accidentally kill and maim the innocent, and inadvertently destroy their property.

The assistance center remains their only avenue for seeking justice. But the experiences of people such as Samia are turning many who were prepared to give the U.S.-led coalition the benefit of the doubt into resentful opponents.

In Sadr City over the past six weeks there have been almost daily — and nightly — clashes involving U.S. troops and fighters belonging to the Jaysh al-Mahdi, a militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a renegade Shia cleric.

The U.S. army is in the unenviable position of fighting a low-intensity conflict and, amid a welter of paper work and conflicting evidence, having to pay for damages as it goes.

No one was injured in the April 27 shooting, which also put nine bullets in my driver's car while it was parked near his house. But Samia's situation is dire. The animals were her sole means of financial support. In a good week, she says she earned up to 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($18.50) by selling their milk. Both animals, which lived in a makeshift byre on the edge of a dirt car park, were pregnant and would cost $800 to replace, she says. But after nearly an hour at the center she is told that on that day they are dealing only with claims from Iraq's provinces. Instead she must go to a compensation center in Sadr City.

Together, we travel to a U.S. army base where we think the assistance center is located. There we are told we have to go to the town council building in the center of Sadr City. "If it is Iraqis then they will not pay," says Samia, whose husband died nearly two decades ago in the Iran-Iraq war. When we arrive we are told no one is in. They pay on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Anyway Samia must also go to the police station to draw up a mahdar (affidavit) and then to the court to have it certified. The other problem is that she has already disposed of the body of the dead cow. She has no photographs and no proof of ownership. The guards suggest she take photos of the second wounded cow which is expected to die.

We come back to Sadr City a week later to the same center, though Samia still does not have an affidavit. Around the center, Iraqi guards lounge with their rifles and complain they have not been paid.

Sergeant Keith Crabtree, a member of a U.S. army civil affairs unit and a scuba diving instructor in his native Houston, is dealing with the inquiries via a translator.

"Obviously we have seen an increase in claims since April 4 (when the recent fighting with the Jaysh al-Mahdi started). A lot of the cases we are dealing with now go back to that time. Unfortunately, I am expecting a lot of those cases to be denied. If people are shooting at us then it is incumbent on us to shoot back," he says.

Under coalition rules, compensation is not paid for personal injury or property damage incurred during combat, such as during the recent fighting in Falluja and south-central Iraq.

The problem for Samia will be whether her cow was shot in a combat situation. If there were Iraqis shooting at the U.S. patrol, for example, she will get nothing. Guards at the car park insist there was no one around.

Abu Haider, the Financial Times' driver, thinks the soldiers may have seen the cow moving in the darkness and mistaken it for an assailant. By Tuesday, Samia still had no word on compensation, partly because of her inability to negotiate the complex bureaucracy. "We've gotten livestock claims. It's not as bizarre as it sounds," says Sergeant Crabtree. "During exercises we often have to compensate farmers. So there is a sliding scale for everything — goats, cows, horses — you name it," he says.

For human beings, the situation is more complex. Misunderstandings and disputes are exacerbated by the vast divide between the Iraqi and American legal cultures.

In Iraq, a man who shoots an armed burglar is still liable to pay the man's family "diya" or blood money, as is the driver of a car that hits a child who bolts into the middle of a road.

But according to the western legal standards employed by the coalition, the parents of the child would be guilty of negligence. And the paltry sums available do little to settle bad feelings. Personal injury compensation runs only to $2,500. That was the sum paid to Osama L'aibia, an itinerant porter who has not been able to work since a U.S. soldier in Sadr City shot him in the leg.

In a report approving the financial award, the U.S. investigating lawyer wrote that a soldier "had a negligent discharge" that seriously wounded five Iraqi civilians.

Mr. L'aibia's is one of 6,000 settlements which, the coalition says, have been paid out in awards worth a total of $4 million. The coalition says 10,000 claims have been denied.

Khalil Taha, 39, a businessman also waiting at the Sadr City assistance center, was sitting in his parked car last December when a patrol of Humvees came the wrong way down the street, hit another car going the right way and crashed into his vehicle. He suffers back pain and had to spend $1,000 repairing his car.

"The Americans' behavior was inhuman. They must respect the Iraqi people," he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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