When Ali Thanoon lost more than 50 members of his family in a U.S. airstrike during the battle against Islamic State in Mosul in the spring, he turned to the Iraqi government for compensation.
But officials required Thanoon to prove his loved ones had been killed: He could get the necessary death certificates only by digging up their bodies from a mass grave.
That would take time. Thanoon had been trapped for five days under the rubble, then hospitalized for weeks. By the time a cousin was able to take Iraqi officials to unearth Thanoons two wives, seven children and other relatives, all they found were "meat and bones," Thanoon said.
"Whats this?" said one of the officials."We need to see faces."
But there was another hard fact: The Iraqi governments compensation program for victims of the Mosul campaign, even those with death certificates, had no money.
For any hope of compensation for his losses, the 50-year-old shop owner would have to turn to the United States, which since the beginning of the war in Iraq has provided millions of dollars in "condolence" payments to families of civilians inadvertently killed by U.S. airstrikes or other unforeseen consequences of combat.
Their purpose is both humanitarian and strategic, a way to maintain good relations with Iraqi citizens and avoid retaliatory attacks.
Yet payments under the U.S. program plummeted after America ended its initial combat role in Iraq in 2010 — and did not pick up again when the U.S.-led coalition launched a violent new phase of the war with its assault on the militant group Islamic State.
The U.S. acknowledges that it has killed at least 801 civilians in Iraq and Syria since the campaign began in 2014. Independent monitors insist the toll is much higher: at least 5,975, according to the London-based monitoring group Airwars.
Congress has set aside at least $5 million through the end of 2018 for payments to civilians under the condolence program. But a review of Pentagon data shows that just three such payments have been made to families in Iraq over the last three years — and none were paid in Syria.
In the highest-profile incident of civilian casualties during the current campaign, a devastating strike that hit Thanoons neighborhood of Jadidah in west Mosul on March 17, more than 100 lives were lost, making it one of the deadliest civilian casualty incidents in modern American military history.
Yet a survey of the neighborhood by the Los Angeles Times last month found almost no one who had been visited by a U.S. investigator or offered compensation.Thanoon said he wasnt even aware that a U.S. program was available.
"No one came to see us," Thanoon said. "Where do we go? We dont know."
A U.S. military investigation found that the strike in Thanoons densely populated neighborhood, which targeted two Islamic State snipers, mistakenly killed at least 105 civilians. Residents and volunteers who responded to the scene initially said they retrieved 278 bodies; Thanoons family now puts the death toll at 155.