IRAQ: ELECTION AFTERMATH: Pentagon doubles forces' death benefit on eve of Bush speech

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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 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.

Thus 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, in Iraq in particular. These strains are already depressing recruitment.

Democrats argued yesterday that the improved benefits should apply to all soldiers who die in the course of duty, not merely in specific combat zones designated by the Pentagon.

It has also been pointed out that even the higher benefits pale beside the average $2.1m paid to families of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee described the existing gratuity as "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.

These developments are all likely to be discussed by Mr Bush in his address to Congress tonight, in which Iraq, alongside domestic proposals including social security and tort law reform, will be a central topic. Though he will stress that Iraq is only part-way along the road to democracy, his officials are not concealing their sense of vindication that the elections went off relatively smoothly.

Business analysis, page 39

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