WASHINGTON – Former POWs and civilians who were tortured or held hostage during the 1991 Gulf War could pursue lawsuits against Iraq under legislation the House has approved.
The White House, saying the bill would threaten economic and political progress in Iraq, threatened to veto the measure if it reaches the president's desk. It still has to clear the Senate.
The legislation, passed by voice vote late Monday, could affect some 17 prisoners of war — all but one pilots of aircraft downed over Iraq or Kuwait — and more than 200 American civilians working in Iraq and Kuwait and held as "human shields" after then-President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, would take away the president's authority to exempt Iraq from lawsuits brought by Americans tortured by state sponsors of terrorism. The president could still grant immunity if he certifies that Iraq has adequately settled, or is making good-faith efforts to settle, claims against it from pending court cases.
Bush in December 2007 vetoed a defense policy bill because it contained a similar provision. He later signed the bill after reaching an agreement with Congress granting him waiver authority, which he exercised in January 2008.
A House Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, was behind the compromise language in the new bill, but the White House said the certification provisions were inadequate to allow the president's waiver rights to continue.
The result, it said, would be "removing Iraq's sovereign immunity and exposing it to potential new liability for billions of dollars in lawsuits seeking compensation for offenses committed by the former Saddam Hussein regime."
The White House also warned that Iraq would take protective measures, including withdrawing its assets from the United States.
The bill limits total recovery for those held hostage to $900,000. Those tortured would be eligible to receive up to $2.5 million plus $6,000 for every day held.