Guards’ Shots Not Provoked, Iraq Concludes
Ali Yussef/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
BAGHDAD, Sept. 20 — Iraq’s Ministry of Interior has concluded that employees of a private American security firm fired an unprovoked barrage in the shooting last Sunday in which at least eight Iraqis were killed and is proposing a radical reshaping of the way American diplomats and contractors here are protected.
In the first comprehensive account of the day’s events, the ministry said that security guards for Blackwater USA, a company that guards all senior American diplomats here, fired on Iraqis in their cars in midday traffic. The document concludes that the dozens of foreign security companies here should be replaced by Iraqi companies, and that a law that has given the companies immunity for years be scrapped.
Four days after the shooting, American officials said they were still preparing their own forensic analysis of what happened in Nisour Square. They have repeatedly declined to give any details before their work is finished.
Privately, those officials have warned against drawing conclusions before American investigators have finished interviewing the Blackwater guards. In the Interior Ministry account — made available to The New York Times on Thursday — Iraqi investigators interviewed many witnesses but relied on the testimony of the people they considered to be the four most credible.
The account says that as soon as the guards took positions in four locations in the square, they began shooting south, killing a driver who had failed to heed a traffic policeman’s call to stop.
“The Blackwater company is considered 100 percent guilty through this investigation,” the report concludes.
The shooting enraged Iraqis, in part because they feel powerless to bring the security companies to account.
“What happened in Al Nisour was that citizens felt their dignity was destroyed,” Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq’s interior minister, said in an interview. The Iraqi “looks at the state and wonders if it can bring him back his rights.”
“It’s important that the company show its respect to the law and Iraqi law,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “Iraqi citizens need to see good treatment, especially when they operate on Iraqi soil.”
And while Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has demanded that the State Department drop Blackwater as its protector, security industry experts say that such an outcome is highly unlikely because American officials rely heavily on the company, setting the two sides on a diplomatic collision course.
The Iraqi version of events may be self-serving in some points. The ministry report states that no Iraqis fired at the Blackwater guards, even though several witnesses in recent days have said that Iraqi commandos in a watchtower did. Blackwater, in its first and only statement, said militants had ambushed its guards.
If the accounts of Iraqi gunfire from the tower are accurate, a central question is when the Iraqis in the tower began to shoot. As the Americans investigate and build their case, it will probably hinge on timing and on the interpretation of the various sources of gunfire. An American Embassy spokeswoman, Mirembe Nantongo, hinted at that in a conference call on Thursday.
“Right, they came under fire, but what is the sequence of events?” she said.
The episode has seriously handicapped the daily operations of the State Department at a time when the focus of the American effort here has shifted to outreach to tribes, local leaders and ordinary citizens in neighborhoods. On Tuesday, the embassy went into lockdown, with trips outside the Green Zone all but stopped.
“There is no activity by Blackwater at the moment,” Ms. Nantongo said. And since Blackwater employees guard embassy officials outside the Green Zone, “we are now not moving.”
The Interior Ministry report recommends scrapping Order No. 17, the rule that was written by American administrators before Iraqis took over the running of their own government and gives private security companies immunity from Iraqi law. It recommends applying criminal law No. 111, part of Iraq’s penal code that was issued in 1969.
Another of the report’s recommendations is for the company to pay compensation to the families of the dead.
Perhaps the part that will bring the most debate is the recommendation to limit foreign security companies.
“We recommend replacing all the foreign security companies with Iraqi security companies in the future,” it said. “These American companies were established in a time when there was no authority or Constitution.”
But even if the government succeeds in changing the rules, it will have difficulty enforcing them. Four private security companies, all Iraqi, have been prohibited from working in past years, but all of them continued operating by changing their names, according to a former security contractor.“How are they going to enforce what they come up with?” the contractor said.
Blackwater had been operating without a license for more than a year, though it had made an attempt to register this spring. Mr. Bolani said that the government was not moving forward with its registration, but that not being registered would not set the company apart from many other foreign security companies operating here. Only 23 foreign companies have licenses, Mr. Bolani said.
The report said that Mr. Maliki had “demanded” that the State Department drop Blackwater as a protector, “for the sake of the two nations’ reputation.”
In the Interior Ministry’s version of that day, the events began unfolding when a bomb exploded shortly before noon near the unfinished Rahman Mosque, about a mile north of Nisour Square. Embassy officials have said the convoy was responding to the bomb, but it is still unclear whether it was carrying officials away from the bomb scene, driving toward it to pick someone up or simply providing support.
Whatever their mission, and whoever was inside, the convoy of at least four sport utility vehicles steered onto the square just after noon and took positions that blocked the flow of midday traffic in three directions. But one family’s car, approaching from the south along Yarmouk Street, apparently did not stop quickly enough, and the Blackwater guards opened fire, killing the man who was driving, the ministry account says.
“The woman next to the driver had a baby in her arms,” said an official who shared the report, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share it. “She started to scream. They shot her,” the official said, adding that the guards then fired what appeared to be grenades or pump guns into the car as it continued to move. The car caught fire.
“The car kept rolling, so they burned it,” the official said.
The account said that the guards entered the square shooting, although Ali Khalaf, a traffic policeman who watched events from a flimsy white traffic booth on the edge of the square and spoke in an interview on Thursday, said a guard got out of the sport utility vehicle and fired.
Mr. Khalaf, who has also been interviewed by American investigators, spoke standing near his traffic booth on Thursday afternoon. He said that he had tried to reach the woman in the seconds after the man she was riding with was shot. But a Blackwater guard killed the woman before he could reach her, Mr. Khalaf said.
What is still unknown is when, or if, Iraqi security forces stationed in at least two compounds adjacent to the square began firing their own weapons.
If the Iraqis began firing early in the episode, investigators could conclude that the Blackwater guards believed they were under attack and were justified in conducting what they might have considered to be a counterattack. Some of the casualties could also have been caused by bullets fired by Iraqis.
The eruption of gunfire was sudden and ferocious, round after round mowing down terrified men women and children, slamming into cars as they collided and overturned with drivers frantically trying to escape. Some vehicles were set alight by exploding petrol tanks. A mother and her infant child died in one of them, trapped in the flames. The shooting on Sunday, by the guards of the American private security company Blackwater, has sparked one of the most bitter and public disputes between the Iraqi government and its American patrons, and brings into sharp focus the often violent conduct of the Western private armies operating in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, immune from scrutiny or prosecution.
Blackwater’s security men are accused of going on an unprovoked killing spree. Hassan Jabar Salman, a lawyer, was shot four times in the back, his car riddled with eight more bullets, as he attempted to get away from their convoy. Yesterday, sitting swathed in bandages at Baghdad’s Yarmukh Hospital, he recalled scenes of horror. “I saw women and children jump out of their cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot,” said Mr Salman. “But still the firing kept coming and many of them were killed. I saw a boy of about 10 leaping in fear from a minibus, he was shot in the head. His mother was crying out for him, she jumped out after him, and she was killed. People were afraid.” At the end of the prolonged hail of bullets Nisoor Square was a scene of carnage with bodies strewn around smouldering wreckage. Ambulances trying to pick up the wounded found their path blocked by crowds fleeing the gunfire. Yesterday, the death toll from the incident, according to Iraqi authorities, stood at 28. And it could rise higher, say doctors, as some of the injured, hit by high-velocity bullets at close quarter, are unlikely to survive.