Iraq: War Victims Fund Aids Innocents

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The jagged scar on 9-year-old Mustafa's scalp tells two stories of the Iraq war.

One begins last August. His father was driving toward a U.S. checkpoint near Baghdad's airport and became confused by commands to halt given in English. The soldiers opened fire, hitting the boy just above his right eye.

Then another chapter starts. The boy's life was saved by surgery paid for by a U.S. fund that includes help for civilians injured by American military action.

As the war enters its sixth year, programs like the $40 million war victims fund represent an increasingly important focus for Washington: How to soften its image on the streets and try to erode backing for insurgents and militia factions?

Emphasis on "soft power" - such as aiding rebuilding and education and taking responsibility to help those caught in the crossfire - is expected to expand as violence declines and Iraq's rival groups take tentative steps toward national reconciliation.

But it's a slow and difficult task among average Iraqis who often view American forces with fear - or have firsthand experience of how any moment can turn tragic.

"At first, I assumed my son was dead," said Mustafa's father, Firas. "I was ready to go around the city and kill every American I could find."

The boy was first treated at the U.S. military hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone and then at the Balad Air Base north of the capital, as well as at a few Iraqi hospitals. But they did not stop a potentially fatal infection.

His last surgery, performed in October in Jordan, managed to halt the infection. The cost was covered by the war victims fund, named for Marla Ruzicka, an American humanitarian activist killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005.

He is still facing more operations to try to save the sight in his left eye, which was also damaged in the shooting.

Mustafa, who shyly hid his face behind his hands when asked questions, said he is scared every time he sees a U.S. soldier on the street outside his home. But the boy - who wants to be a doctor when he grows up - also said he liked the Americans who helped him.

"I just want my last operation and to get better," Mustafa said. "I'm tired of my bad eye."

His father, too, said he has mixed feelings toward Americans.

"Of course, there is a conflict inside of me about this, having my son shot by American forces but receiving help from the U.S.," Firas said in a recent interview in Baghdad. "But the existence (of the fund) is correcting some of the coalition's mistakes and brutal actions against the people in Baghdad."

Like all Iraqis interviewed for this story, he asked not to be fully identified, fearing for his life if it were discovered he had received U.S. help.

The fund is overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, and distributed by four nongovernment agencies that cover different regions of the country. The U.S. military plays no direct role in the fund, which is separate from a Pentagon-run program that allows compensation for deaths, injuries or property damage blamed on U.S. forces.

Gavin Helf, who oversees the war victims fund for USAID, said the program "builds up credibility in places where we haven't been before, places where trust is really low."

"Whether or not the funds are purely altruistic is not for me to say," said Leslie Gonzales, an official for the International Relief and Development, which distributes the war victims' fund in the Baghdad area.

"Does it help win over hearts and minds toward the U.S.? ... Yes, in many cases it does. But it also tremendously affects the lives of individuals," said Gonzales.

Winning over those caught up in this war is not always easy.

Ala'a, a 9-year-old girl, was shot in the genitals by a stray American bullet as troops battled insurgents outside her family's home in December 2004. She declined to speak about the incident, though her mother tried coaxing her into describing her feelings.

A beautiful girl wearing a green hijab and a yellow Bert and Ernie sweat shirt, she slowly shook her head and fiercely flashed her amber-colored eyes when asked if she could ever forgive the Americans - despite the money from the victims fund that paid for the last of her five surgeries. She still needs one more operation - to correct her wound cosmetically.

"Of course there is room for forgiveness, this is part of the Arab tradition," the girl's mother, Fatima, said after her daughter made her own feelings known. "I can forgive the American forces for what they did to my daughter."

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