Blackwater Iraq Shootings Unprovoked? Evidence Mounts

Evidence continues to mount that Blackwater contractors fired without provocation on unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square on September 16, killing 17 people and wounding 27.

It has also emerged that Blackwater withdrew its membership from a professional security industry association two days after it announced that it would examine Blackwater’s conduct in the September 16 shootings.

New witness accounts of the Blackwater shootings have been given by three Kurds who watched events unfold from the rooftop of a building overlooking Nisoor Square. All three said they had seen no one fire on the Blackwater vehicles.

The US military has also said that US troops who arrived within minutes of the incident had determined that the Blackwater contractors had not been fired upon. The soldiers spoke to witnesses, took photographs of the aftermath and gathered forensic evidence from the scene. Most crucially, they found only cartridge casings that matched weapons used by US troops and contractors.

Blackwater and the US State Department have insisted that the contractors were forced to return fire when they were attacked by insurgents in Nisoor Square. The State Department has also supported Blackwater’s story that one of their vehicles had been disabled by insurgent gunfire and had to be towed away from the scene.

The three Kurdish witnesses are considered highly reliable for a number of reasons: their view from the rooftop was unobstructed; their perception of events is not clouded by the terror and chaos that gripped witnesses on the ground; and they are members of a pro-American political party and thus not hostile to the US presence in Iraq.

One of the Kurdish witnesses, a guard identified only as Sabah, saw Blackwater open fire on a white sedan killing a 20 year-old medical student and his mother. This had set in motion a gruesome chain of events. Sabah said there had been no provocation, “Nothing at all. No mortars. No shooting.”

“I call it a massacre,” said Omar Waso, another witness and a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. “It was one-sided shooting from one direction. There wasn’t any return fire.”

Mr Waso could not understand why contractors kept firing on the civilians long after it was clear that there was no resistance. Blackwater had even killed people trying to flee. Mr Waso saw one man get shot the back of the head.

After a brief lull in the gunfire, the Blackwater vehicles began moving out of the square – all of them on their own power. That is when one Blackwater guard unleashed a hail of gunfire on a bus filled with people. “The glass was all broken,” said Mr Waso. “Women and children, all of them were shouting and crying.”

Mr Waso then ran to the scene to assist victims and told an Iraqi soldier he should give chase. “Leave [the victims] and try to follow that company before they get away,” he said to soldier. “They killed innocent people for no reason.”

The September 16 incident has infuriated many in the US military, who have long argued that the brutal behavior of Blackwater contractors has worked against the US mission in Iraq. “If our people had done this,” said one US military official, “they would be court-martialed.”

In addition to the US military’s investigation, there are three additional inquiries underway into the Nisoor Square incident: one by the FBI, another by the US Congress and a third joint inquiry by the US-Iraqi governments.

One week ago, the Iraqi government announced that after its own immediate investigation into the Nisoor Square incident, it had found that Blackwater contractors “deliberately murdered” 17 unarmed civilians. It demanded that Blackwater pay the families $136 million dollars in compensation, that the US State Department terminate all Iraq-related Blackwater contracts within six months, and that the US government hand over the Blackwater contractors involved in the shootings to face criminal charges in Iraq.

On Friday, the families of four of the Nisoor Square victims sued Blackwater and its CEO, Erik Prince, for “creating and fostering a culture of lawlessness among employees” resulting in a “lengthy pattern of egregious misconduct in Iraq” including the “repeated callous killing of innocents”.

Meanwhile, it appears that Blackwater may have withdrawn its membership from the International Peace Operations Association in order to stop an inquiry by the association – one of Blackwater’s fiercest advocates in the wake of the September 16 shootings.

Blackwater withdrew its membership two days after the association agreed to look into the incident to determine whether Blackwater’s  “processes and procedures” complied with IPOA’s professional code of conduct.

IPOA’s director of programs and operations, J.J. Messner, said Blackwater had initially agreed that the review was appropriate, but then abruptly severed its relationship with the association for undisclosed reasons.

Sources: The New York Times; The Associated Press

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