The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings, Torture and Big Money
October 3rd, 2007 - US Control over Guards in Iraq Urged
By Bryan Bender
October 3, 2007
Washington - Humanitarian groups and security specialists urged Congress yesterday to pass new legislation placing US contractors in Iraq under the jurisdiction of federal courts after new allegations that personnel at the largest private security company working there have used excessive, deadly force against Iraqi civilians and gone unpunished.
The calls for accountability come after alarming new reports that Blackwater USA, a firm employed by the State Department to guard American diplomats in Iraq, has been responsible for mounting Iraqi casualties and property damage. The use of thousands of heavily armed private security forces in Iraq came under scrutiny yesterday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Govern ment Reform Committee that featured Erik Prince, the chief executive officer of Blackwater, a former Navy commando.
Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the committee, said using deadly force with impunity against everyday Iraqis is undermining the United States' mission. Davis said Iraqis "understandably resent our preaching about the rule of law when so visible an element of the US presence there appears to be above the law."
But Prince said employees work in a highly volatile combat zone and often face the same type of attacks as US troops. Any Blackwater guard who is found to have used excessive force is disciplined or fired, he said.
Thousands of private contractors, including those protecting US and Iraqi officials, have operated in a legal limbo since an order approved by the now defunct US Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 granted them immunity from prosecution in both US or Iraqi courts. Legislation earlier this year partially lifted that immunity, making private contractors working for the Pentagon subject to US military prosecution.
That has left State Department contractors such as Blackwater and others to operate with far less accountability, according to legal specialists.
"It's time to close the legal loopholes that allow contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan to commit crimes with impunity," Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday. "Illegal and abusive conduct should not go unpunished."
Daskal and others urged lawmakers to support a bill proposed by Representative David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, that would extend the reach of federal law to all security contractors in Iraq. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act is expected to come up for consideration today. The International Peace Operations Association, a security trade organization whose members include Blackwater, also endorsed the bill yesterday.
"Effective legal structures are necessary to ensure ethical operations in the field, and are not just valued by clients and local populations, but are also viewed as being in the long-term interest of our industry," the group said in a statement yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a humanitarian organization based in Washington, called for "uniform rules and accountability measures for all private security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The United States has paid billions of taxpayer dollars to private firms in Iraq and Afghanistan, issuing contracts to provide American troops with everything from food, fuel, and supplies to protecting US and Iraqi diplomats as they travel. The private bodyguards, however, have garnered intense scrutiny because of frequent firefights with insurgents - and because they aren't bound by the same rules of engagement as US military personnel.
In 2004, Blackwater came under the spotlight when insurgents ambushed and killed four of its employees, burned their corpses, and dangled the charred, mutilated remains above a bridge near Fallujah. The ambush precipitated a major US offensive, a bloody battle that took the lives of three dozen US military personnel.
During yesterday's hearing, Davis and other House members yesterday grilled Prince, Blackwater's founder, about new allegations that employees protecting American diplomats in Iraq killed 11 Iraqi civilians last month - and a report that a drunken Blackwater guard gunned down the Iraqi vice president's bodyguard after a Christmas Eve party last year. The FBI is investigating the September episode; Prince said the employee involved in the Christmas Eve shooting was removed from Iraq and fined but never faced criminal charges.
Earlier this week, the House oversight panel released a report that found that Blackwater employees have been involved in at least 196 firefights in Iraq since 2005 - roughly 1.4 shootings a week. In 84 percent of those cases, the report found, Blackwater workers opened fire first, despite contract stipulations that they use force only in self defense. The report also found that other Blackwater employees involved in illicit activities, including drug use and vandalism, have been relieved of duty but were not held responsible in Iraq or in the United States.
Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat of Maryland, likened Blackwater's Iraq personnel to "a shadow military of mercenary forces that are not accountable to the United States government or to anyone else."
Prince rejected allegations that his company's guards have operated as rogue "cowboys." He said his employees are professional and disciplined, trained to use force as a last resort to get clients out of potentially deadly situations. "I believe we acted appropriately at all times," Prince, 38, told the House committee, noting that no US officials have been killed while under his company's protection.
"We are the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis," he added. "Any incident where Americans are attacked serves as a reminder of the hostile environment in which our professionals work to keep American officials and dignitaries safe, including visiting members of Congress. In doing so, more American service members are available to fight the enemy."
Based in North Carolina, Blackwater's workforce consists mostly of former US military commandos, including highly trained Army Rangers and Special Forces troops. Started in 1997, it has been paid nearly $1 billion by the State Department for its services, including providing military training for Iraqis and combat survival classes for civilians.
But mounting reports that Blackwater employees are willing to shoot first and ask questions later have set off new concerns about the role of private security firms working for the US government in battle zones.
Peter W. Singer, a specialist in military contractors at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said heavy reliance on private contractors has damaged the US effort in Iraq by taking on war-zone jobs the Pentagon used to do itself and charging far more than government personnel would have cost.
"The US government needs to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate its use of private military contractors, especially armed roles within counterinsurgency and contingency operations," he concluded in a Brookings report in September.
David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, told the House committee that his agency relies on private security personnel in Iraq and insisted that abuses are extremely rare. On the whole, he said, the contractors have "performed exceedingly well," and "with professionalism and courage."
Satterfield also assured the committee that each reported firefight involving private security forces is fully investigated. He said that a joint US-Iraqi commission has been established to conduct a "comprehensive examination" of the role of private security forces in Iraq, and a top US diplomat was asked to review of the department's overall security practices.
But even Prince acknowledged that holding his employees accountable is ultimately a matter for law enforcement, not the State Department or the Pentagon. Asked about the shooting involving the drunken Blackwater worker, he told the committee, "We fired him. We fined him. But we as a private organization can't do any more. We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department. We are not empowered to enforce US law."
By James Glanz & Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times
October 3, 2007
Baghdad, Oct. 2 - It started out as a family errand: Ahmed Haithem Ahmed was driving his mother, Mohassin, to pick up his father from the hospital where he worked as a pathologist. As they approached Nisour Square at midday on Sept. 16, they did not know that a bomb had gone off nearby or that a convoy of four armored vehicles carrying Blackwater guards armed with automatic rifles was approaching.
Moments later a bullet tore through Mr. Ahmed’s head, he slumped, and the car rolled forward. Then Blackwater guards responded with a barrage of gunfire and explosive weapons, leaving 17 dead and 24 wounded - a higher toll than previously thought, according to Iraqi investigators.
Interviews with 12 Iraqi witnesses, several Iraqi investigators and an American official familiar with an American investigation of the shootings offer new insights into the gravity of the episode in Nisour Square. And they are difficult to square with the explanation offered initially by Blackwater officials that their guards were responding proportionately to an attack on the streets around the square.
The new details include these:
- A deadly cascade of events began when a single bullet apparently fired by a Blackwater guard killed an Iraqi man whose weight probably remained on the accelerator and propelled the car forward as the passenger, the man’s mother, clutched him and screamed.
- The car continued to roll toward the convoy, which responded with an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions, striking Iraqis who were desperately trying to flee.
- Minutes after that shooting stopped, a Blackwater convoy - possibly the same one - moved north from the square and opened fire on another line of traffic a few hundred yards away, in a previously unreported separate shooting, investigators and several witnesses say.
But questions emerge from accounts of the earliest moments of the shooting in Nisour Square.
The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle. Not one witness heard or saw any gunfire coming from Iraqis around the square. And following a short initial burst of bullets, the Blackwater guards unleashed an overwhelming barrage of gunfire even as Iraqis were turning their cars around and attempting to flee.
As the gunfire continued, at least one of the Blackwater guards began screaming, “No! No! No!” and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting, according to an Iraqi lawyer who was stuck in traffic and was shot in the back as he tried to flee. The account of the struggle among the Blackwater guards corroborates preliminary findings of the American investigation.
Still, while the series of events pieced together by the Iraqis may be correct, important elements could still be missing from that account, according to the American official familiar with the continuing American investigation into the shootings.
Among the questions still to be answered, the official said, is whether at any time nearby Iraqi security forces began firing, possibly leading the Blackwater convoy to believe it was under attack and therefore justified in returning fire. It is also possible that as the car kept rolling toward the intersection, the Blackwater guards believed it posed a threat and intensified their shooting.
Blackwater has said that its guards were fired upon and responded appropriately.
Witnesses close to the places where most of the Iraqi civilians were killed directly facing the Blackwater convoy on the southern rim of the square all give a relatively consistent picture of how events began and unfolded.
The Blackwater convoy was in the square to control traffic for a second convoy that was approaching from the south. The second convoy was bringing diplomats who had been evacuated from a meeting after a bomb went off near the compound where the meeting was taking place. That convoy had not arrived at the square by the time the shooting started.
The events in the square began with a short burst of bullets that witnesses described as unprovoked. A traffic policeman standing at the edge of the square, Sarhan Thiab, saw that a young man in a car had been hit. In the line of traffic, that car was the third vehicle from the intersection where the convoy had positioned itself.
“We tried to help him,” Mr. Thiab said. “I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out: ‘My son, my son. Help me, help me.’”
Another traffic policeman rushed to the driver’s side to try to get her son out of the car, but the car was still rolling forward because her son had lost control, according to a taxi driver close by who gave his name as Abu Mariam (“father of Mariam”).
Then Blackwater guards opened fire with a barrage of bullets, according to the police and numerous witnesses. Mr. Ahmed’s father later counted 40 bullet holes in the car. His mother, Mohassin Kadhim, appears to have been shot to death as she cradled her son in her arms. Moments later the car caught fire after the Blackwater guards fired a type of grenade into the vehicle.
The taxi driver was a few feet ahead of Mrs. Kadhim’s car when he heard the first gunshots. He was aware of cars behind him trying to back out of the street or turn around and drive away from the square. He tried frantically to turn his car, but ran into the curb.
Unable to escape, he pulled himself over to the passenger side, which was the one not facing the square, opened the door and crawled out, flattening his body to the ground.
“The dust from the street was coming in my mouth and as I pulled myself out of the area, my left leg was shot by a bullet,” he said.
Accounts in the initial days after the event described Mrs. Kadhim as holding a baby in her arms. It now appears that those accounts were based on assumptions that the charred remains of Mrs. Kadhim’s son were mistaken for an infant.
By then cars were struggling to get out of the line of fire, and many people were abandoning their vehicles altogether. The scene turned hellish.
“The shooting started like rain; everyone escaped his car,” said Fareed Walid Hassan, a truck driver who hauls goods in his Hyundai minibus.
He saw a woman dragging her child. “He was around 10 or 11,” he said. “He was dead. She was pulling him by one hand to get him away. She hoped that he was still alive.”
As the shooting started in earnest Jabber Salman, a lawyer on his way to the Ministry of Justice for a noon meeting, described people crying and shouting. “Some people were trying to escape by crawling,” he said. “Some people were killed in front of me.”
As Mr. Salman tried to drive away from the shooting, bullets came one after another through his rear windshield, hitting his neck, shoulders, left forearm and lower back. “I thought, ‘I’m sorry they are going to kill me and I can do nothing.’”
Iraqi investigators believe that during the shooting Blackwater helicopters flew overhead and fired into the cars from above. They say that at least one the car roofs had bullets through them. Blackwater has denied that its helicopters discharged any weapons.
Minutes after the first shootings, a Blackwater convoy arrived at the other side of the square, where civilian traffic was also backed up, and shot into cars, according to an Iraqi official who is a member of the investigation committee set up by the Iraqi government.
“I found three people from that incident in Khadimiya hospital,” the Iraqi official said. “One died and two were injured. Why is the private security shooting again in this area?”
Two weeks after the events that claimed the life of Mrs. Kadhim and her son, her husband, Haithem Ahmed, her daughter Mariam and her younger son, Haider, are still bewildered.
“My son was very gentle, very clever,” Mr. Ahmed said, looking down at the floor of the police investigation center where he had come to give more details at the request of Iraqi investigators. “He was easy to be around. He planned to be a surgeon.”
“She is a beautiful woman,” he said of his wife, speaking as if she were still alive.
Then he looked at a picture of his son, captured on a memorial video made by a friend and stored on Haider’s cellphone camera. Seeming to forget there was anyone else in the room, he spoke to the video image.
“I am waiting to meet you in paradise,” he said.
Qais Mizher contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company