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Pension Agency Makes First Payments
New York Times, May 19, 2003
U.S. soldiers guard an office building
in Baghdad where thousands of Iraqi pensioners gathered Sunday in an
effort to collect a $40 emergency payment.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi agency responsible for paying pensioners handed out emergency cash for the first time Sunday, triggering hours of chaos as retirees and their families fought with U.S. troops to force their way into the Baghdad office building.
More than 5,000 retirees and their relatives showed up early Sunday to collect an initial $40 emergency payment -- two crisp $20 bills -- designed to help them until Iraqi workers can reconstruct thousands of records looted after U.S. troops entered Baghdad.
The Iraqi Pension Department expects to pay more than 350,000 people in the next 30 days -- an average of 14,000 people a day.
U.S. soldiers began stringing concertina wire around the building on Saturday to secure the site. When huge crowds showed up Sunday morning, the Iraqis began trying to push their way past the wire into the building.
Troops struggled with the crowd, and many fell into the wire and were cut by sharp edges. Some men tried to jump over the wire, and some women slapped and bit U.S. soldiers while trying to force their way in. Soldiers pointed their weapons at the Iraqis to persuade them to back away.
More than a dozen men were detained and handcuffed, but they were later released. U.S. forces addressed the crowd using interpreters with bullhorns.
``We've appealed to the people to settle down, but they won't,'' said 1st Lt. Lars Nadig, whose platoon was protecting the building. ``They don't care, they keep pushing, it's a free-for-all. They'll trample each other if we let them.''
Moafa Attisha, director-general of the Iraqi Pension Department, said he had expected the first day to be chaotic. He predicted things will calm down and the crowds will dissipate when people realize they will be paid only on their assigned days.
Attisha has set up 40 payment windows around the building and said it should be easy to pay 14,000 people during the eight hours the department is open every day.
``We tried very hard to find the best solution,'' Attisha said, noting that his building -- and most of Iraq's banks -- had been looted.
He said he hoped to be making full pension payments to all the retirees in the next few months, after his staff can reconstruct records, acquire new computers and refurbish looted offices.
``We know these people are suffering,'' Attisha said.
On the other side of the wire, the crowd surged as people tried to force their way past a narrow entrance between two Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Elderly Iraqi men and women held pension cards over their heads, begging the U.S. soldiers and department employees to let them in.
Some of the retirees collapsed in the intense summer heat and were treated by the soldiers. U.S. Army medics were dispatched to the building to treat the civilians for heat exhaustion and other injuries from the wire.
Hirk Margilos, a 60-year-old electrician, said pensioners were desperate for any kind of income. He said he had begun taking odd jobs to get by, but that many elderly women -- mostly widows -- were completely dependent on government income before they war.
He knew it wasn't his day to collect a payment, but was hoping the staff would make exceptions.
``We are hungry,'' Margilos said as he struggled with the crowd. ``We have nothing.''
Pensioners peer through the window of
the office building. Scuffles erupted outside when people in the crowd
began trying to push their way past U.S. troops and security wire to get
into the building.