Counting the Cost

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Photograph of Al Saadi by Patrick Hamilton / Newspix

Australian soldiers, top left, guard a compound in Baghdad; a van driver, below left, shown after being shot outside the Australian compound; Lamyaa al-Saadi, right, and her son Ahmed were wounded in another shooting incident now being examined in Brisbane

For many of the Australian soldiers who served in Iraq in early 2005, the bloody mayhem they were embroiled in was something they hoped to forget. But last week a landmark lawsuit in Australia brought it all back at a time when many are struggling to deal with the mental trauma of their war service.

An Iraqi family is suing the Australian government for damages after they were shot by Australian soldiers. The case has raised questions about the liabilities of defense personnel who harm civilians in a war zone, and prompted angry soldiers to demand better care and protection from the government on their return.

The al-Saadi family allege they had been traveling in their vehicle in a street near the Australian embassy in Baghdad on the evening of February 26, 2005, when they were fired upon without warning. Nezar al-Saadi claims that when he stopped his car, an Australian soldier knelt down and fired four rounds into the passenger side of the vehicle, according to a statement filed in a Brisbane court last week.

One of the bullets hit his wife, Lamyaa al-Saadi, causing the loss of sight in her left eye, skull and jaw fractures, hearing loss and scarring to her face. Her son Ahmed, then 8, was blinded in the right eye from glass splinters from the windscreen; Mr. al-Saadi and other children suffered mental trauma. They also allege the Australian soldiers failed to give them medical assistance. They claim they were given no warning before the soldiers opened fire.

The al-Saadi's were able to launch their legal action after being granted a medical visa to live in Australia. They moved to Brisbane, by coincidence the home town of many of the soldiers from the unit involved in the shooting.

Last week the Australian Defence Force said it would defend the claim and denied that any of the soldiers acted improperly. But today the soldier who fired on the vehicle spoke for the first time about the incident and revealed he, like a number of his comrades, had left the army after the shooting and was undergoing psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome — a condition he believes the army is not doing enough to treat.

Ben, who asked that only his first name be used for security reasons, also disputed parts of the al-Saadi's account. He believes the Australian government handled the matter poorly at the time and failed to keep soldiers informed about the case and the al-Saadi family's move to Australia. "It was always my worst fear. I knew this thing was never going to go away," says the private, who, a month earlier, had been in a vehicle that was attacked by a suicide bomber in a car rigged with explosives.

Ben, who was only 20 at the time, confirms he shot into the al-Saadi's vehicle, but denies it had come to a stop. "We saw this vehicle turn the corner with its lights on and it was traveling reasonably fast. We started holding up our hands making the Arabic signal for stop and calling out the word for stop," he says. "The vehicle came closer and closer until it was about 30m away, when one soldier fired two warning shots above the vehicle. Technically no warning shots should have been fired as we had been told don't fire warning shots. If it's a threat, it's a threat — and you shoot." Ben says he "fired three shots into the vehicle. One went through the side, another went into the engine block and a third went into the passenger side of the vehicle, wounding the woman."

Immediately after the shooting, Ben says he and three other soldiers moved to secure the area but saw angry Iraqis shouting "Why, why?" as they ran out of their houses. "We could hear children in the vehicle," he says. "It looked like a scene out of the movie Pulp Fiction. People covered in blood." The soldiers found themselves surrounded by Iraqis and one of the snipers said over the radio he had seen an Iraqi going to get a weapon. This prompted the Australians, in accordance with their orders, to withdraw — making it impossible for them to stay and give medical attention.

After the shooting, the soldiers were segregated to write their accounts of the incident. "We never heard either way what the results of the investigation were," says Ben. Another soldier in the unit, who asked not to be named, confirmed most of Ben's story and says Australian soldiers later traveled to the Sadr City hospital where the woman had been taken and arranged her transfer to a U.S. military hospital.

Several weeks later the soldiers were asked to make a financial donation to the family. Several thousand dollars were raised and given to the family. Ben says he gave $33. "That's all I had in my pocket," he says. "I wasn't too happy about it. I didn't feel that it was the right way to handle it." Some of the other soldiers agreed. "It made us look like we were liable or trying to cover it up or something," says one.

Ben and other soldiers say a similar shooting on Jan. 24 was handled differently. In that incident, an Iraqi civilian who stopped his van in front of the embassy after driving the wrong way up the road and, despite warnings, got out of the vehicle and was killed. "We don't know what happened to the wife of that man who was in the car," Ben says. Another member of his unit adds: "She certainly wasn't brought to Australia to sue us."

Brisbane lawyer John Cockburn, who represents Ben in his dealings with the army over his psychiatric issues, says he is so concerned about the way troops are being treated after leaving Iraq that he established the Young Injured Servicemen Project, which aims to help soldiers adjust to civilian life. "There is an absolute disconnect with some of these guys once they leave the military. Without the proper attention they go on to get involved in all sorts of problems."