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Posted by on Dec 6, 2008 in Places, War | 0 comments

Blackwater Contractors Indicted for Sept. 2007 Nisoor Square Massacre: A Round-Up & Retrospective

The September 2007 massacre in Nisoor Square was one of many shameful chapters in a long history of discreditable/tragic incidents. Private contractors —or, as some call them, “mercenaries” — spooked by an unfortunate incident, opened fire into a crowd of civilians who were milling around the street trying to go about their lives.

We’re relieved that some of those responsible are being made to answer for this act of recklessness and indifference to human life and we hope that some or all will be held accountable for it.  It won’t bring back the dead, but it will show that there is a line that even private contractors (whose accountability to anyone but their corporate masters has seemed almost nil) may not cross.

The Washington Post says:

Five Blackwater Worldwide Security guards have been charged in a September 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and raised questions about the U.S. government’s use of security contractors in combat zones…

The indictment caps a year-long investigation into the shooting, which occurred Sept. 16, 2007, when the guards’ convoy arrived in Baghdad’s bustling Nisoor Square.

An Iraqi government investigation concluded that the security contractors opened fire without provocation. And the U.S. military and initial findings by the FBI found that Blackwater guards were the only ones who fired their weapons
that day. Blackwater has said its guards were fired upon and acted in self-defense.

A federal grand jury in Washington has heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including some Iraqis, the sources said….

[T]he men generally face assault charges — allegations that do not require prosecutors to prove that the guards actually wounded or killed any Iraqis. They will have to prove only that they fired their weapons in an attempt to harm them, the sources said.

Some of the men may face charges under a 1980s drug law that has severe penalties for use of a machine gun in a crime of violence, the sources said. The law has a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Blackwater still doesn’t think it’s personnel did anything wrong.  Of course it doesn’t.  If your stomach is strong, you may refer to the articles for the defense arguments.  Note that these are not military personnel but war contractors, and that the US military was strong at the time in condemning this act of cowardice/supreme indifference to human life for making their substantially less lavishly remunerated jobs much more difficult and dangerous.

If you think I am exaggerating the hideousness of this massacre of civilians, then you need to refresh your recollection or introduce yourself to the underlying facts.

The final count of the dead?  Seventeen  And many more were wounded.

The victims were as young as 11 and as old as 55, according to hospital records. They were middle class and poor. They included college students, day laborers and professionals vital to rebuilding Iraq. There was a mother and her daughter. The daughter lived. There was a taxi driver, only 25, who was the sole provider for his parents and
seven siblings. He died. (WaPo 10-4-07)

Was it self-defense—or the use of reasonable and proportionate force in response to a perceived threat?  They said then as they said now that this was the case.

Blackwater guards say they were ambushed and shot at by Iraqi policemen and civilians. Ten eyewitnesses and Iraqi police officials insisted in interviews that the guards opened fire in the square, unprovoked, and continued shooting even as civilians fled for their lives. (WaPo 10-4-07

Those eyewitnesses strongly disagreed.

The Blackwater convoy that entered Nisoor Square, in response to a bomb attack near a State Department convoy a mile away, was not attacked, “not even by a stone,” Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesman, said in a statement.

The employees of the North Carolina-based company, he said, committed “an intentional murder that needed to be called to account according to the law.” The casualty toll he gave was higher than the previous official tally of 14 dead and 18 injured based on hospital records. (The Washington Post 10-8-07)

On October 12,1007,  The Washington Post reported that these hired mercenaries were apparently firing at fleeing cars.

“It appeared to me they were fleeing the scene when they were engaged. It had every indication of an excessive shooting,” said Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa, whose soldiers reached Nisoor Square 20 to 25 minutes after the gunfire subsided.

His soldiers’ report — based upon their observations at the scene, eyewitness interviews and discussions with Iraqi police — concluded that there was “no enemy activity involved” and described the shootings as a “criminal event.” Their conclusions mirrored those reached by the Iraqi government, which has said the Blackwater guards killed 17 people.

The soldiers’ accounts contradict Blackwater’s assertion that its guards were defending themselves after being fired upon by Iraqi police and gunmen.

Tarsa said they found no evidence to indicate that the Blackwater guards were provoked or entered into a confrontation. “I did not see anything that indicated they were fired upon,” said Tarsa, 42, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. He also said it appeared that several drivers had made U-turns and were moving away from Nisoor Square when their vehicles were hit by gunfire
from Blackwater guards”(WaPo 10-12-07).

Our troops made a point of seeking out the Iraqi victims in order to express their disgust, sorrow, and horror.

In the hours and days after the Nisoor Square shootings, the U.S. military sought to distance itself from Blackwater. Dozens of soldiers went door-to-door to seek out victims, offer condolence payments and stress that the military was not involved in the shootings, Tarsa and his soldiers said. Their actions underscore the long-standing tensions between the U.S. military and private security companies — and the military’s concerns that such shootings, and the lack of accountability for the private security industry, could undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

“It was absolutely tragic,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and the Army’s top commander for Baghdad. “In the aftermath of these, everybody looks and says, ‘It’s the Americans.’ And that’s us. It’s horrible timing. It’s yet another challenge, another setback,” he said…

An Iraqi colonel walked up to Tarsa and described the Blackwater shooters as men in “tan uniforms, black helmets, and that flag,” pointing at the U.S. flag on Tarsa’s sleeve. The colonel added that he knew the U.S. military wasn’t involved. Still, Tarsa dispatched his soldiers across their sector over the next few days.

“I wanted our guys to be on the ground, to look people in the eye, to listen to their anguish, listen to their outrage, to let them know we’re going to help those people personally affected,” Tarsa said.

I was concerned about acts of vengeance and misinformation somehow indicating we were part of this event,” he said.  Tarsa spoke with community and tribal leaders.

“It was a very tense 24 hours,” said Maj. David Shoupe, the battalion spokesman. “We didn’t know which way it was going to go.”(WaPo 10-12-07; emphasis added)

Even from the first, military investigators could see that the Blackwater argument that they had to shoot 17 people in self-defense was without merit.

“I was surprised at the caliber of weapon being used,” said Capt. Don Cherry, 32. “My guys have 203s with nonlethal rounds we use as warning shots. It’s a rubber ball that bounces off the windshield.”….

By 1:30 p.m., both Cherry and Tarsa had arrived. Some Iraqi police officials told them that the Blackwater guards fired at [a] white car as it neared the square. The officials guessed that the driver may have accidentally pressed on the accelerator instead of the brakes, Tarsa said. Witnesses have said the car was driving slowly and posed no threat.

“With a vehicle speeding up to a convoy, that’s grounds for escalation of force,” said Sgt. Jesse Fegurgur, 30.

Cherry said he could consider the assault on the white sedan “a mistake,” but he didn’t understand why the guards fired down the road at cars whose drivers had turned around and were moving away.

“I was upset this happened,” Cherry said. “This was uncalled for.”

Decareau saw cars pointed away from the square with their rear windshields shot out, many bullet holes and smears of blood, he said.

An Iraqi colonel walked up to Tarsa and described the Blackwater shooters as men in “tan uniforms, black helmets, and that flag,” pointing at the U.S. flag on Tarsa’s sleeve. The colonel added that he knew the U.S.
military wasn’t involved. Still, Tarsa dispatched his soldiers across their sector over the next few days. (WaPo 10-12-07)

The series of events that led up to the shooting are described here.  The aforementioned white sedan was driven by a 46 year old doctor and her son.

On that day, the Blackwater convoy was responding to a bombing near a State Department convoy about a mile away. As the Blackwater armored vehicles entered the square, a heavily guarded area near Baghdad’s affluent Mansour neighborhood, Iraqi police officers moved to stop traffic.

Kadhum, the doctor, and her son Haitham, who were in the flow of cars the officers were trying to stop, didn’t react quickly enough. A Blackwater guard fired, striking Haitham as he sat in the driver’s seat, three witnesses said.

“The bullet went through the windshield and split his head open,” recalled traffic police officer Sarhan Thiab. “His mother was holding him, screaming for help.”

The car, which had an automatic transmission, kept rolling. Another officer, Ali Khalaf, tried to stop the vehicle as another spray of bullets killed Kadhum….

In sworn statements to State Department investigators reported by ABC News, four Blackwater guards said they fired upon the sedan because it was traveling at high speed and would not stop. Khalaf and other eyewitnesses said it was moving slowly and posed no threat….

Within moments, bullets flew in every direction, said witnesses and police officials. Scores sought cover in a nearby embankment. Others abandoned their vehicles. “They were shooting from four cars,” said Ahmed Ali Jassim, 19, a maintenance worker, referring to the Blackwater guards. “People were fleeing, but where could they go?”


You can see photos of the murdered mother and son here.  The father, also a doctor, spoke to CNN afteward:

Haythem could only recognize his oldest boy from his tall and slim physique as well as what was left of his shoes. His son’s head had been blown away, his body charred beyond recognition. His wife of more than 20 years was torn apart.

“Only part of her neck and jaw remained,” Haythem told CNN. The rest of her was covered by a body bag.

Choking back tears, he said, “Killing them was not enough, blowing up their skulls, they burned them and disfigured them.”

Haythem, 46, a doctor who specializes in blood diseases, spoke from his temporary home in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood where he is living with his mother and two remaining children — daughter Maryam, 18, and son Haidar, 17.

While he spoke, his mother sat in a corner of the room, moaning and sobbing, rocking back and forth on a couch. She wore all black.

All Haythem and the family know about the final moments of their loved ones is what two Iraqi police officers who witnessed the shootings have told them — that Ahmed was shot as he was driving his car in Nusoor Square and his mother clutched him tight as he was bleeding.

“Those who witnessed the incident say that my son’s head was scattered and my wife held him and hugged him,” Haythem said. “She was screaming, ‘My son, my son! Help me! Help me!’ “….

“They understood the call for help. They sprayed her with bullets,” he said….

Haythem’s wife also was a doctor and his son was attending medical school with hopes of becoming a surgeon.

“They destroyed my family and they killed my beloved wife, my better half,” Haythem said calmly. “They deprived me of my eldest son who I have raised into a strong, young man. They deprived him of fulfilling his dream to be a doctor and a surgeon. They planted pain and misery in the hearts of my two younger kids.”…

Maryam sat with her father throughout the interview, not wanting to leave his side. She said she and her mother were close friends — able to chat like sisters and share stories beyond most mother-daughter relationships.

“My friends would always tell me how much they noticed my mom’s love for me. She used to always talk to me about my future and her dreams for me,” she said. “I hope I live up to her expectations.”

Maryam’s last conversation with her mom was the morning of September 16. Maryam had a biology exam that day. Her mom woke her up and reviewed the material with her to make sure she was properly prepared for the test.

“She stayed for another few minutes, joking and laughing,” Maryam said, tears running down her cheeks.

Haythem was dropped off at work that day by his wife and son. They then picked up a college application for Maryam, who is hoping to enter dental school. At some point afterward they were killed.  (CNN)

One can only hope that the actual perpetrators, and their company, will receive more than a slap on the risk for this attack—-which was not only lawless, reckless, cowardly, and murderous, but also unprofessional, considering that these were meant to be trained guards.

You can read an account of Blackwater CEO Eric Prince’s little chat with Congress, which discusses some of Blackwater’s adventures in Iraq, here.  It was revealed at the time that the attractive and articulate Mr. Prince does not care for the word “mercenary.”  On October 2, 2007,  at The Lede, Mike Nizza noted;

Mr. Prince does not like being called a “mercenary.”

“A lot of people call us mercenaries,” he said, even though “We have Americans working for America protecting Americans.” That’s in stark contrast to the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A professional soldier working for a foreign government.”

But that’s the second definition in The American Heritage Dictionary. Here’s the first: “Motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain.”

If you like this kind of wordplay, there’s more on mercenaries here.

That report, which is fraught with interest, comes with videos.


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