Monday, September 5, 2011

New law could slash disabled Iraqi veterans' already paltry benefits

From The NY Times:

BAGHDAD — It is hard to say which is a worse indignity to the thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers who have suffered crippling injuries fighting alongside the Americans in a war that continues today: receiving subpar medical care from the government they fought to preserve, or a new law that could slash their already paltry benefits.
“We are defending the Iraqi people,” said Ali Mohammad Heaal (pictured), who was a police trainee when he lost his left arm in a car bomb attack in 2005 and now works at a nongovernmental organization that advocates on behalf of wounded members of Iraq’s security forces. “Right now, we feel humiliated.”

Mr. Heaal’s organization, the Lanterns of Mercy, is trying to overturn the new law, passed in July by Parliament, that raises the salaries of active-duty soldiers and police officers but reduces government payments to those who have been wounded, including those who have lost limbs and have been unable to obtain prosthetics to enable them to work again. The law could be put into effect as soon as this month.

His efforts appear to be paying dividends, as some members of Parliament now say they never intended to reduce compensation for war veterans and plan to consider amending the legislation. Even in Iraq, it seems, politicians are finding that there are risks to laws that appear to abandon veterans.

“We are studying it,” said Abbas al-Bayati, a lawmaker and a member of the security committee. “If we find there are problems, we are ready to modify it in a way that keeps the level of compensation for their sacrifices.”

As it is written now, the law would also reduce lump-sum payments to those who were severely wounded and rescind a provision from a previous law that awarded land to victims — even though many have not received any property.

Mr. Bayati said that the intention of the law was to raise salaries for active-duty soldiers and police officers, and that he was unaware of the provisions that reduced compensation for veterans. “This is an unintentional mistake, and we will address it through amendment as soon as possible,” he said.

Another lawmaker, Najiha Abdulamir, a member of a parliamentary commission for wounded veterans, said that if Parliament did not change the law, then veterans should “demonstrate and demand their rights.”

The controversy comes as the American military prepares to withdraw, leaving the fighting to Iraq’s soldiers and police officers, who continue to take casualties from insurgent attacks almost daily, and who face those dangers without the comfort of knowing that their country will care for them and honor their sacrifices if they are hurt.

The new law that will reduce veterans’ benefits has Iraq’s wounded feeling dishonored and ignored. Many recall Saddam Hussein’s time, when those who sacrificed to preserve a dictator’s power were rewarded with land and money. “If you compare now to the previous regime, it would have been better,” Mr. Heaal said. “And they call this a democracy.”
Many joined Iraq’s new army after it was reconstituted in 2005 for a mix of motives, economic and patriotic.

“There were no opportunities for work in 2003,” said Ali Jasim, 39, who fought alongside American soldiers and Marines before losing a leg in 2005 when he was struck by a roadside bomb while securing polling sites for a national referendum that year on Iraq’s new constitution. “I also felt I needed to protect my country.”

He and his sister, and their children, are squatters in a ramshackle and boxlike home constructed of concrete blocks in a poor Shiite neighborhood that is a maze of dirt alleys.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Jasim was spending his day as he always does: lying on the floor, his head propped up on a pillow, sweltering from the lack of air-conditioning and surrounded by his children. Like many men in his position, he is experiencing a severe economic hardship that, with the passage of the new law, could get worse.

After his injury, Mr. Jasim continued to receive his full pay — which had included a combat bonus and allowances for food — of $700 a month. It was then reduced to $450 when the government stopped paying the extra danger pay. Under the new law, he said, his pay will fall to $200.

Mr. Heaal, the former police trainee, was forced to sell his house to pay for medical treatment after being wounded. He receives $530 a month, and he could see his compensation fall to under $200 a month.

The law has added a new layer of resentment toward politicians who operate in a sphere of corruption and favoritism, and who are widely seen as out of touch with most of the Iraqi people.

“I joined the police to protect my country in a time when you were afraid of going outside the Green Zone,” said Falah Hassan Abed, who was displaced from his home because he could not work after losing his right leg in 2005, directing his rage at lawmakers. “I was face to face with the ruthless killers, the terrorists. In return, I just want to live in dignity, me and my family, and not be forced to beg to feed my family. I want to feel that there is someone who is grateful for what I did and what I lost.”

In some ways the thousands of casualties among Iraq’s army and police are the forgotten victims of the war, overshadowed in many accounts of the conflict’s toll by the numbers of American troops and Iraqi civilians who have been killed or wounded. Those numbers are familiar and easily referenced: close to 5,000 American military personnel killed, and nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed, according to some accounts. Among Iraq’s security forces, more than 10,000 have been killed, according to the Iraq Index compiled by the Brookings Institution, and while there is no precise estimate for the number wounded, that figure is certainly in the tens of thousands.

A further grievance for these soldiers and police officers is the knowledge that the American soldiers and Marines who fought with them returned home to a country that may not have supported the war, but supported them. They have glimpsed television images of American presidents visiting the wounded in military hospitals.

“Here in Iraq, we don’t have any officials visiting us,” Mr. Heaal said. “And now they are punishing us with this new law.”