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Iraq releases body of US contractor after dispute

Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) – The body of an American contractor who was found dead in Baghdad was flown back to the U.S. on Tuesday after a two-week bureaucratic debate over whether the Iraqi government would perform an autopsy on his remains.

Officials said Michael David Copeland, 37, is among a handful of Americans working for the U.S. government to die in Iraq since December. That’s when a security agreement between the two nations expired, eliminating immunities that shielded the U.S. military from local laws.

Copeland’s case is a snapshot of the new reality of working in Iraq for Americans who, over the years, were accustomed to vast privileges and influence that disappeared when the U.S. troops left.

Officials said Copeland, of Colbert, Okla., moved to Iraq within the last month to take a job on an aviation project with DynCorp International under a State Department contract. His body was found in his bed on June 9, family members said. No foul play was suspected.

Under Iraqi law, as in other countries, local authorities must issue a death certificate before releasing a body to survivors outside the country. The documents must state a cause of death. In Copeland’s case, the former Marine showed no obvious signs of trauma or illness.

A small number of other contractors died in Iraq this year before Copeland, officials said, although they didn’t give an exact figure. But the cause of death was obvious in their cases.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not have a medical examiner on staff to do autopsies. So Iraq’s Health Ministry initially insisted on doing an autopsy on Copeland before allowing the Americans to repatriate his remains.

Monjid Salahuddin, the ministry’s Forensic Department director, said last week the autopsy was needed according to Iraqi law because the cause of death was “ambiguous.”

“No way will there be a compromise,” Salahuddin said last Thursday.

Copeland’s family, however, just as adamantly refused to allow one, saying the autopsy should be performed in the U.S.

“We had absolutely no knowledge of the capabilities of the facilities and personnel that would be utilized in Iraq and were much more comfortable knowing that the autopsy would be conducted here in the U.S.,” Brent Berry, Copeland’s cousin, said in a June 24 email to The Associated Press.

“It has been incredibly difficult for the family to hold it together during the last two weeks not knowing what happened to Michael and not knowing when, or if, he will ever be returned to U.S. soil,” he said.

Americans grew used to seeing the flag-draped caskets of dead soldiers returning from battle after more than eight years of sending a U.S. military force to Iraq. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died in Iraq from the initial invasion in March 2003 to the final withdrawal last December. More than 2,000 American contractors also died in that period.

The military’s departure from Iraq brought the end of legal immunities and other benefits, putting the Americans who remain in a new and often uncomfortable position of adhering to laws and customs that previously were bypassed with the help of the U.S. military’s influence.

Officials at the U.S. State Department and in Congress initially had little success in getting the Iraqis to budge on Copeland’s autopsy. Iraq’s government vehemently defends its sovereignty and for years has been sensitive to the perception that it bends to U.S. demands.

Within the last two days, however, U.S. and Iraqi officials reached a compromise to review the case and determine Copeland died of natural causes. Copeland was quietly flown out of Iraq late Tuesday afternoon before the government could change its mind.

“Mr. Copeland’s remains have departed Iraq en route to the United States,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.


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