IRAQ: ELECTION AFTERMATH: Pentagon doubles forces' death benefit

RESPONDING TO intense pressure from Congress, the military and the general public, the Pentagon announced a large increase yesterday in death benefits for US soldiers killed in combat zones, doubling the total compensation paid to relatives to $500,000 (pounds 266,000).

Under the proposals, outlined in testimony by senior defence officials on Capitol Hill on the eve of President George Bush's first State of the Union address of his second term, the tax-free "death gratuity" will go up from $12,420 to $100,000.

At the same time, maximum life insurance coverage will increase to $400,000 from the current $250,000, with the extra premium to be paid by the Pentagon. Both changes will be retroactive to October 2001, to cover troops who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, 1,415 troops have died in the Iraq war alone, and almost 100 more in Afghanistan, and the total cost of the measure could reach $450m. But congressional and Pentagon leaders consider that a small price to pay given the strains placed on the military which are already depressing recruitment.

It has been pointed out that even the higher benefits pale beside the average $2.1m paid to families of victims of the 11 September attacks. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the existing gratuity was "derisory" and "paltry".

US troops are being killed almost daily in Iraq - last Wednesday was the single deadliest day of the war, with 37 deaths.

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