- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

The U.S. government has spent scores of millions of dollars helping the civilian casualties of its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Much of the assistance comes from a fund named in honor of a slain American aid worker who made recompense for the innocent victims of wars her life’s work.

Marla Ruzicka was 28 in April when she died at the hands of a suicide bomber in Baghdad. She had urged lawmakers to put money into the annual foreign operations spending bill in three consecutive years, providing a total of nearly $40 million for individuals and communities in Afghanistan and Iraq that suffered what the military calls collateral damage.

In the latest bill, the civilian assistance program was named the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.

An aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, one of the key lawmakers involved, said that about half the amount appropriated — $25 million for Iraq and $13 million for Afghanistan — has been distributed so far. The money is spent by the U.S. Agency for International Development in collaboration with relief groups and other nongovernmental organizations. The funds are used to provide in-kind assistance, such as medical care, equipment to start a business, or the replacement of damaged or destroyed property such as homes and schools, said the Leahy aide, Tim Rieser.

The military also has paid out millions of dollars in cash under U.S. regulations that give unit commanders access to a special fund to “respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirements.”

In many parts of Iraq, the U.S. military uses these funds to run programs generally paying out up to $2,500 per victim to the families of those killed, and smaller amounts to those who are injured or have property destroyed or who were detained.

The military’s Commanders’ Emergency Response Program was funded for $340 million last year. This year, Congress has appropriated $854 million, said Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Roseann Lynch.

The discretionary “condolence payments” represent only one of a variety of small dollar-value projects on which the cash is spent. No breakdown was available on the shopping list of infrastructural and civic repairs and improvements.

The military traditionally has been chary of anything that smacks of compensation, because of concerns about the vast liability that would be assumed if such payments could be inferred to recognize a right to recompense for any civilian affected by military operations.

“This system of sympathy payments is designed to avoid any assumption of legal liability by the military,” said Mr. Rieser, who has been briefed by the Pentagon on the program. “But in doing so, they are acknowledging that a mistake was made, that harm was done, and that compensation is warranted.”

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