Marla Ruzicka (search) dedicated her life to helping others.

At 28, she had traveled to Africa to work on AIDS issues, to Cuba (search) to protest the U.S. embargo and to Afghanistan (search) after the U.S.-led war there. The blond-haired activist with a cherubic face and infectious smile was a one-woman campaign against human suffering who was instrumental in securing millions of dollars in aid for distribution in Iraq (search).

Ruzicka died Saturday in a car bombing in Iraq, where she had been on and off since the March 2003 invasion began, conducting door-to-door surveys to determine the number of civilian casualties, friends and family said.

"It's a terrible tragedy and a tragic irony that somebody who devoted her life to helping the victims of war would herself become a victim of war," said Medea Benjamin, director of the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, where Ruzicka got her start a decade ago in the world of non-governmental organizations.

Ruzicka, of Lakeport, Calif., founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC, to help families of civilians killed and injured in Iraq. Her parents were notified of her death on Saturday, just hours after the blast in Baghdad. U.S. Embassy officials publicly released Ruzicka's name Sunday.

"We've been very worried about her, but we know better than to tell our children not to do anything. We were supportive and just reminded her to be careful," said her mother, Nancy Ruzicka.

She said her daughter had left her a telephone message the night before her death, saying, 'Mom and dad, I love you. I'm OK.'"

"She cared about people and gave people her love and help," she said. "I'll remember the love she spread around the world and the good ambassador that she was for her country."

Ruzicka helped acquire millions of dollars from the federal government for distribution in Iraq.

"She came to us with the idea of putting a special fund in the foreign aid bill to take care of projects to help people whose businesses had been bombed by the U.S by mistake or collateral damage of some sort," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Sunday.

"Just from the force of her personality, we decided to take a chance on it," said Leahy, who planned to speak about Ruzicka on the Senate floor Monday and possibly help organize a memorial service for her in Washington.

"She was constantly calling us to say they're moving too slowly," he said. "She was kind of a one-person department over there ... moving the money around."

Benjamin recalled that Ruzicka walked into the Global Exchange office 10 years ago as a "pretty, peppy, vivacious young woman who wanted to learn about the world."

"She had this real thirst to learn and always had a tremendous sense of compassion," Benjamin said. "She was quite remarkable in her ability to absorb different issues, quickly learn about other cultures and become an ally to people all over the world."

Ruzicka was set to leave Iraq within a week, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

"Everyone who met Marla was struck by her incredible effervescence and commitment," Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "She was courageous and relentless in pursuit of accurate information about civilians caught up in war."

In an essay Ruzicka sent to Human Rights Watch a few days before her death, she explained the significance of her work assessing casualties.

"A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family," Ruzicka wrote.

When President Bush announced in March 2003 that the invasion of Iraq had begun, Ruzicka was already in Baghdad with Code Pink, said Jodi Evans, the co-founder of the women's anti-war group.

"Bush came on television saying the game is over, we're invading Iraq," Evans recalled. Other activists decided to return to the United States to talk about how the Iraqi people were affected by the invasion, but Ruzicka made a commitment to stay. She founded the group CIVIC that year.

"Marla thought she would be more effective staying, because once the bombs started falling, people would be hurt and she needed to help them get their lives back together," Evans said.

Even as fighting continued to rage in sections of Baghdad in mid-April 2003, Ruzicka arrived back in the Iraqi capital, set up office in an unprotected hotel and soon was a regular visitor to the city's makeshift newsrooms, encouraging media interest in the civilian-casualty story.

Ruzicka is among several foreign aid workers killed in Iraq. Others included Margaret Hassan, a British aid worker who was abducted in Baghdad in October and later shown on video pleading for her life, and four workers for a Southern Baptist missionary group who were trying to find a way to provide clean water to people in the northern city of Mosul.

A funeral service was scheduled for Saturday in Lakeport.