The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings, Torture and Big Money
September 21st, 2007 - Survivor Recalls Blackwater Shootings
By Bushra Juhi
September 21, 2007
Baghdad - Lawyer Hassan Jabir was stuck in traffic when he heard Blackwater USA security contractors shout "Go, Go, Go." Moments later bullets pierced his back, he said Thursday from his hospital bed.
Jabir was among about a dozen people wounded Sunday during the shooting in west Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood. Iraqi police say at least 11 people were killed.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki described the shooting as a "crime" by Blackwater, a N.C.-based company that guards American diplomats and civilian officials in Iraq.
"No one fired at them," Jabir said of the Blackwater guards. "No one attacked them but they randomly fired at people. So many people died in the street."
Blackwater's operations have been suspended pending completion of a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation. In the meantime, most U.S. diplomats and civilian officials are confined to the Green Zone or U.S. military bases unless they can travel by helicopter.
As Jabir posed for photographers in Yarmouk Hospital, an Interior Ministry official came by to register his name as a victim in connection with the investigation.
Jabir's account is among several versions which the investigators hope to reconcile. Blackwater insists that its employees came under fire from armed insurgents and shot back to protect State Department employees.
The New York Times reported in its Friday editions that the Iraqi government has concluded the Blackwater guards weren't fired upon and that the shooting was unprovoked.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry report stated that "the Blackwater company is considered 100 percent guilty through this investigation," according to the Times. The document also recommends the dozens of foreign security companies in the country be replaced by Iraqi companies, their immunity lifted, and that Blackwater pay compensation to the families of the victims.
A U.S. official in Washington who's familiar with information collected by investigators said the accounts given by witnesses are widely different. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is not over.
Jabir, whose left arm and chest were bandaged, said he was driving toward the Ministry of Justice when he found the road clogged with traffic. He saw several armored vehicles with armed guards on the roofs parked ahead of the traffic jam. Three black SUVs were behind them.
"After 20 minutes, the Americans told us to turn back," he said. "They shouted 'Go' 'Go' 'Go.'... When we started turning back, the Americans began shooting heavily at us. The traffic policeman was the first person killed."
The shooting set off a panic, Jabir said, with men, women and children diving from their vehicles, trying desperately to crawl to safety.
"But many of them were killed," he said. "I saw a 10-year-old boy jump in fear from one of the minibuses. He was shot in his head. His mother jumped after him and was also killed."
Suddenly, Jabir felt two bullets strike his back - one pierced his left lung and the other lodged in his intestines.
"I kept on driving my car because if I left it, I would die," he said. "Then I was hit with two other bullets, one in my right hand and the second in my right shoulder just under the neck. ... I was rescued by Iraqi special forces" who rushed to the area.
"I swear to God that they were not exposed to any fire," Jabir said of the Blackwater guards. "They are criminals and thirst for blood."
U.S. officials have refused to discuss details of the shooting pending completion of the investigation.
President Bush told reporters in Washington that he expects to discuss the incident with al-Maliki during a meeting in New York next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.
"Folks like Blackwater who provide security for the State Department are under rules of engagement," Bush said. "They have certain rules. And this commission will determine whether they violated those rules."
According to the official in Washington, most of the Iraqi witnesses say Blackwater guards fired on a car which had acted suspiciously. The car then burst into flames and exploded, according to the Iraqi witnesses.
American witnesses maintain they were taking fire before the car approached, and fired back. Some insist the car exploded without being hit, the official said. That version suggests it was a car bomb.
Some Iraqis didn't seem to care which version was correct. For them, the real problem is that their country is occupied by foreigners - whether soldiers or civilians.
"Our problem is rooted in the occupation, regardless of whether it's by security firms or foreign troops," a Baghdad resident, who have his name only as Abu Ahmed, told Associated Press Television News. "This is one of the grave consequences of the occupation."
Associated Press correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Associated Press
External link: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/world/5153561.html
The U.S. Embassy and the group protect each other, says a diplomat, as Iraqis doubt an inquiry will yield any results.
By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman
Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2007
Baghdad - Habib Sadr was sitting at his desk when the shots rang out. A sniper had just shot three security guards outside his office at the government-run Iraqi Media Network.
With the fatally wounded guards lying by their checkpoint, a security convoy rolled into the neighboring Justice Ministry compound. Sadr believed the sniper was with them. The incident, he said, was a brutal introduction into the world of private security contractors.
An internal investigation by Sadr's department found that Blackwater USA was responsible. But seven months after the Feb. 7 shootings no one has been charged.
"We discovered it was Blackwater who did this thing. They fired at our martyrs without any reason. They didn't do anything. They were just standing at their checkpoint. Everyone knows this is the site of the Iraqi Media Network," said Sadr, who is head of Iraqi state media.
"It's a strange thing. Animals get killed and gain more attention. Here we have human lives lost. We respect the laws, we filed the case, I was keen to take the thing through the official channels."
A U.S. diplomat confirmed that Blackwater guards carried out the shooting, but said he did not know the results of the State Department security office's inquiry. He raised concerns that the investigation into the North Carolina-based firm was being conducted in too secretive a manner.
"Because they are security, everything was a big secret," the official said, on condition of anonymity, referring to the relationship between the U.S. Embassy's security office and Blackwater. "They draw the wagon circle. They protect each other. They look out for each other. I don't know if that's a good thing, that wall of silence. When it protects the guilty, that is definitely not a good thing."
The death of the media network guards was one of several shootings that have damaged the contractor's reputation among Iraqis and some U.S. diplomats. The latest incident, Sunday's fatal shooting of 11 Iraqis by a Blackwater security detail in west Baghdad, has forced the U.S. Embassy to agree to an unprecedented review of private security companies and the embassy's oversight of such contractors.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Wednesday blamed Blackwater for six other shootings since the firm was hired in 2003, and demanded that the security firm be replaced. The U.S. Embassy has said it will await the outcome of an investigation.
Blackwater and American officials have disputed the Iraqi findings on Sunday's shooting, saying Blackwater guards came under fire as they were protecting State Department officials.
"The [guards'] convoy came under attack, and there was defensive fire as a result of that," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday. Blackwater has not responded to Maliki's allegations about the six other shootings.
One contentious item to be studied is the immunity shielding security contractors and U.S. employees from Iraqi courts, which was granted by this nation's former U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, in June 2004, the day before Iraq regained its sovereignty.
"It is a good time now to look at the whole concept of the ... personal security details' operations here, the whole framework, what are the expectations, what are the standards. These are issues we are going to be looking at closely in the coming weeks," said Mirembe Nantongo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy.
Blackwater has long operated off the U.S. military's radar, answering instead to the embassy's security staff. Military officials express resentment at what they view as renegade behavior by private security contractors, including running Iraqis off the road, throwing water bottles and a quick trigger finger. "We pay for their indiscretions every day," one U.S. officer said on condition of anonymity.
The view from the Iraqi police is no better. "They don't have car licenses. They don't have any names. Nobody knows who they are. If they are asked, anyway, they bully people," said Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf.
In July, a Blackwater convoy traded fire with guards at the Interior Ministry, killing five policemen and wounding eight others, a ministry official told The Times on condition of anonymity.
Hassan Jabbar Salman, 45, was driving his car by Nisoor Square in the Mansour district Sunday when the Blackwater convoy opened fire. Trapped at the traffic circle, Salman sat helplessly as bullets flew. Four of them entered his back, one piercing his left lung above his heart.
"I knew that those were Blackwater's vehicles. I know them very well. They shot my son ... on July 17, 2005, and I have a court case against them since then," Salman said by telephone from his hospital bed.
The case has languished, and his son still has not completely recovered, he said.
"I now have two experiences with this company," he said. "I think all members of this company are criminals who were taken from American prisons."
The Salmans were lucky in some respects. They survived to ask questions. On Feb. 4, 2007, days before the Interior Ministry guards were killed, Suhad Shakir, 37, employed by the U.S. military, was driving toward the Green Zone at 9 p.m. "There was ... a convoy of SUVs, I think of U.S. contractors. They were driving in the main road. The girl drove her car behind them but very close, so one car in the convoy shot at her six times and left," said Abu Haidar, a witness who owns a kiosk in the area.
Suhad's father, Shakir Ismail, a retired psychologist, is still devastated. Suhad Shakir had worked as an anchor on an English-language news program before she took a job with the Iraqi Assistance Center, which helps the U.S. military coordinate medical services, track detainees and provide compensation for Iraqis. Ismail said he spoke with her American boss, whom he identified as Col. Karl, after her death. He said the American told him the shooting was a mistake. " 'We know Suhad very well, she was our friend, she was killed in the wrong place, in the wrong way! We feel very sorry for her,' " Ismail recalled Karl saying.
Ismail can't be certain Blackwater was behind his daughter's death, but in his mind it remains the likely culprit.
Recently weakened by a heart attack, Ismail remains at home, grieving his loss. "I encouraged her since her childhood to choose the way she likes to live, to choose what kind of personality she wants, what kind of education. She loved all people in the whole world. She loved peace. She was sympathizing ... with the American soldiers."
Ismail had encouraged his children to learn English, but wants nothing to do with the United States. "They said first they came to establish democracy in the country, but instead we are see the killing of innocents and we have to keep silent," he said. "This is not acceptable. Such acts must not be done."
Some wonder whether any investigation will resolve Sunday's shooting or the other cases allegedly involving Blackwater.
The embassy's security staff will participate with Iraqis in a review of the incident. Although it is standard procedure for the security staff to investigate such cases, a U.S. diplomat suggested that the staff's close relationship with Blackwater gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"We are at cross purposes, saying, 'We want to rebuild your country.' On the other hand, you have this thing going on," the diplomat said. "At some point you ask, 'Why am I here?' For every step forward, there is two steps back."
By Matthew Lee
September 21, 2007
Washington - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she had ordered a "full and complete review" of security practices for U.S. diplomats in Iraq following a deadly weekend incident involving private guards protecting an embassy convoy.
Rice's announcement came as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad resumed limited diplomatic convoys under the protection of Blackwater USA outside the heavily fortified Green Zone after a two-day suspension because of the weekend incident in that city.
Rice said she had directed the State Department to examine "how we are providing security to our diplomats."
The review will include all aspects of protection, including the rules of engagement for security guards and under what jurisidiction they should be covered, department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
While on a plane returning from the Middle East to Washington, Rice ordered the review on Thursday in a phone call to the veteran diplomat who will lead it, Patrick Kennedy, a senior management official, according to McCormack. He said the review would be conducted as quickly as possible and might bring in outside experts.
U.S. diplomatic travel had been halted following Sunday's incident in which guards employed by Blackwater, a private security firm, opened fire in response to an alleged attack on a convoy.
At least 11 people, including Iraqi civilians, were killed in the firefight. Iraqi officials have called the incident a "crime" and initially called for Blackwater to be expelled from the country. Rice and other U.S. officials have urged the Iraqis to wait until investigations are complete before taking any permanent steps.
"We take very seriously what happened," Rice said, noting she had called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to express regret at the loss of innocent life.
Rice declined to comment on Friday's resumption of Blackwater-protected convoys but paid tribute to the guards from the firm, one of three that provide security for U.S. diplomats and other civilian government officials in Iraq.
"We have needed and received the protection of Blackwater for a number of years now and they have lost their own people in protecting our people in extremely dangerous circumstances," she said.
The United States and Iraq have agreed to form a joint commission to look into Sunday's incident and make recommendations to clarify confusing rules and regulations that govern the conduct of private security contractors in Iraq.
A senior official on al-Maliki's staff said the Iraqi government realizes that it may not be able to push through a ban on Blackwater USA because the Americans rely so heavily on security firms. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is politically charged.
Iraqi and U.S. witnesses have offered widely divergent accounts of what happened: Iraqis say the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation and the Americans say the security detail was responding to an attack.
Blackwater has not made any comment about the incident since releasing a statement on Monday that said its employees acted properly in responding to an attack.
McCormack said the Blackwater guards who fired weapons in Sunday's incident, about a third of the 15-20 strong-team protecting the convoy, are "standing down" from their jobs at least temporarily. He did not say whether they would return to duty.
The al-Maliki aide said some of the Blackwater guards believed to have been involved in the shooting were Iraqis and could face prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Blackwater had conducted about 1,800 security details for diplomatic visits outside the Green Zone since January and that there had been very few incidents in which weapons were discharged, he said.
The joint U.S-Iraqi commission is charged with going over separate U.S. and Iraqi investigations of Sunday's incident, establishing a common set of facts and then suggesting how to proceed. It will be headed on the U.S. side by Patricia Butenis, the No. 2 at the embassy in Baghdad, and on the Iraqi side by a senior official from the Defense Ministry.
It is expected to soon convene for the first time, according to State Department officials who say it will likely propose changes to the existing rules that date from the U.S.-led occupation government and give private contractors immunity from Iraqi laws.
Security contractors are also not subject to U.S. military law under which U.S. troop face prosecution for killing or abusing Iraqis.
The al-Maliki aide said the several options were under study, including a new set of regulations and rules of engagement for security convoys. He gave no details but said security companies would have to "accept Iraqi law," and Blackwater would likely have to pay compensation to the victims or their survivors.
Sunday's killings have outraged many Iraqis, who have long resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.
But the United States relies heavily on Blackwater and the two security companies, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, to protect American diplomats and civilian officials since the 160,000-strong American military force is already stretched thin trying to subdue Sunni and Shiite extremists.
Blackwater protects U.S. diplomats in Baghdad and Hilla, while Dyncorp works in the northern Kurdish areas of Iraq and Triple Canopy operates in the predominantly Shia south, according to McCormack.
Associated Press Writer Robert Reid in Baghdad contributed to this story.