The streets of this northern Iraqi city were almost deserted, when a US ambush patrol spotted a suspicious vehicle driving near the blast site.

Tracking the car with their night-vision goggles they waited until the driver was in range and then opened up with a deadly burst of machine-gun fire.

Fifty-three bullets smashed into the BMW, 13 of which entered the driver's head and torso.

Eyewitnesses reported that 21-year-old Sinan Ibrahim Ismail was seen moving inside his car for several minutes after the attack, but that Iraqi civilians were prevented from providing medical aid by the US patrol which had secured the area.

"When I asked them why this happened, an American told me that 'this was a terrorist,'" said doctor Ali Tirzi. "But when I saw the car, I told them they were wrong; this was my cousin."

Iraqi police arrived at the scene and confirmed that Sinan was not the suspect that they were targeting. The US patrol had shot the wrong BMW. Sinan was studying nursing at the local college and he had worked part-time for the previous six months at the US airbase in Kirkuk.

Impersonal attitude

Following the incident, the US military made no attempt to contact the Ismail family. As Sinan's father had passed away in 1993, the matter of Sinan's death was taken up by his uncle, Jallil Amen, who approached the Americans on behalf of the family.

"I was told that the matter was under investigation and I would be notified of the final decision," said Amen. "Three months later, they called and told me to come to their headquarters."

"Please know that your son was a good man and there is absolutely no evidence that he was working with the anti-coalition forces"

Samuel Schubert, Major, US Army Command Judge Advocate

After being escorted inside the compound, Amen was presented to a United States judge advocate general (JAG) captain who presented him with a letter which read exactly as follows:

"On behalf of the coalition forces in Kirkuk, Iraq, I want to express my deep sympathy for you and your family for the loss of your son Sinan.

"I know that this is a difficult time for you but please know that your son was a good man and there is absolutely no evidence that he was working with the anti-coalition forces.

"I am sorry that we could not deliver our sentiments in person, but security risks prevent this from being possible. I sincerely hope the best for you and your family in the future."

The letter was signed, "sincerely" by Samuel Schubert, Major, US Army Command Judge Advocate.

No compensation

It must be noted that Major Schubert is stationed at the US airbase, five kilometres from the civil administration headquarters where the letter was delivered by his subordinate. Along with this single piece of correspondence emblazoned with the official Department of Defence letterhead, Amen was handed ten $100 bills and a receipt to sign.

"I asked the captain, 'What's this money is for?' The BMW alone was worth $5000," said Amen. The JAG officer politely explained that the $1000 was not intended as compensation for property damage, but was in essence a grant from the international aid fund.

"He wanted me to know that the US is not legally liable for such mistakes - and that this money I was to receive was not from the American military," said Amen. "It was offered as a gesture of sympathy."
 
As an ethnic Turkmen, Amen can speak passable English, but cannot read anything except Turkish. As none of the US correspondence was translated for his benefit, he did not realise that the "receipt" he signed was in fact a settlement agreement, whereby he waived any rights to take future legal action against the US.

"I was told if I do not sign and take the money, they would not give me the letter," said Amen.

"The last thing the JAG captain said to me as he handed over the cash was: 'Remember, we don't put a dollar figure on a human life.'"

Hostage-taking

But some would appear to have no such qualms about fixing a price tag to foreigners.

I had no sooner arrived at my colleague's house in Baghdad when Anmar al-Saadi proudly advised me that there is a price on my head.

A journalist, one of an increasing
number captured, is released

"I was offered $2000 to turn you in as a hostage the next time you came to Iraq," he said. "Two men approached me in a restaurant after your last visit in April, and said that they had been watching my house."

I had employed Anmar on numerous occasions before the war as a driver/translator; and since the occupation, I have found it safer to stay with his family in the suburbs rather than at a hotel.

Since early April there have been numerous kidnappings of foreign contractors and journalists in Iraq, so such a threat was not completely unexpected.

"They believe that they can get $1 million from the Canadian government in exchange for their $2000 investment," said Anmar.

"Of course, if I don't hand you over, they have threatened to harm my family."

Despite the risk, Anmar insisted that we continue working together, but as a precaution we have changed residence and vehicle.

Profit and loss

As I learned during a visit to the front gate of the US airbase in Mosul, Iraqi kidnappers are not the only ones seeking to make a tidy profit from the post-war chaos in Iraq.

"How much have you invested in Iraqi dinars?" asked Sergeant Gore as I awaited clearance to enter the base. When I laughed at what I believed to be a rhetorical joke, he continued.

US soldiers are profiting from
the exchange rate

"Don't you want to be a millionaire? We're all buying up every dinar we can find and shipping them home."

During the nervous pre-war weeks, the Iraqi dinar was trading at an all-time low of 3000 dinars to a single US dollar.

Since Saddam was toppled, and despite the escalating insurgency, the Iraqi currency has steadily gained strength against the dollar. With the current exchange rate set at 1450 dinars, its value has increased in excess of 100% in just 12 months.

"We all know that before the [1999] Gulf war, the Iraqi dinar was worth more than $3 dollars," said Gore. "If it climbs back to even one tenth of that figure (30 cents to the dinar), we will all be millionaires in say, five to ten years."

Security contracts

Unable to venture downtown to exchange their money, the US soldiers eagerly barter with the Iraqi civilians who work on the base as they pass through the front gate each day.

Another topic of discussion among the guards was the lucrative salaries paid to the nearly 15,000 former soldiers who now work in Iraq as private security contractors.

"When I'm done my three months here, I'm gonna get out of the [air force] reserves and come back to Iraq to make some serious money," said Specialist Johnson, a 21-year-old from Iowa.

Some US reservists want to come
back to Iraq as mercenaries

When some of the regular force military police overheard this statement, they began to mock the stout Johnson as "not having what it takes to be a mercenary".

In response, the young reservist replied: "The jokes on you, cause I've already signed a contract. He claimed he had signed up in the Mosul camp with the Global security company and would be paid $20,000 a month plus expenses.

Ironically, at the same guardhouse were a number of copies of Army magazine, the official publication of the US forces.

One of the features outlined how the US army had set about cleaning away the post-war litter in Iraq. It reported that the US employed local workers for the sum of $2 a day which, the story noted, "is a lot of money by local standards".