IRAQ: Blackwater dropped riot gas on U.S. troops
The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green
Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and U.S. military
Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a
riot-control substance the U.S. military in Iraq can use only under the
strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders.
An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily
blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 U.S. soldiers operating the
"This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous," Army Capt. Kincy
Clark, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. "It's not
a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs,
snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and
otherwise degrade our awareness."
Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the
Assassins' Gate checkpoint were not from the U.S. military, but were
part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security
contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent
episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad
that left 17 Iraqis dead.
None of the U.S. soldiers exposed to the chemical, which is similar to
tear gas, required medical attention, and it is not clear if any Iraqis
did. Still, the previously undisclosed incident has raised significant
new questions about the role of private security contractors in Iraq,
and whether they operate under the same rules of engagement and
international treaty obligations that the U.S. military observes.
"You run into this issue time and again with Blackwater, where the rules
that apply to the U.S. military don't seem to apply to Blackwater," said
Scott Silliman, the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and
National Security at the Duke University School of Law.
Officers and noncommissioned officers from the 3rd Infantry Division who
were involved in the episode said there had been no signs of violence at
the checkpoint. Instead, they said, the Blackwater convoy appeared to be
stuck in traffic and may have been trying to use the riot-control agent
as a way to clear a path.
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, said the CS gas had been
released by mistake. "Blackwater teams in the air and on the ground were
preparing a secure route near a checkpoint to provide passage for a
motorcade," Tyrrell said in an e-mail message. "It seems a CS gas
canister was mistaken for a smoke canister and released near an
intersection and checkpoint."
She said that the episode was reported to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad,
and that the embassy's chief security officer and the Defense Department
conducted a full investigation. The troops exposed to the gas also said
they reported it to their superiors.
But military officials in Washington and Baghdad said they could not
confirm that an investigation had been conducted. Officials at the State
Department, which contracted with Blackwater to provide diplomatic
security, also could not confirm that an investigation had taken place.
Blackwater says it was permitted to carry CS gas under its contract at
the time with the State Department. According to a State Department
official, the contract did not specifically authorize Blackwater
personnel to carry or use CS, but it did not prohibit it.
The military, however, tightly controls use of riot control agents in
war zones. They are banned by an international convention on chemical
weapons endorsed by the United States, although a 1975 presidential
order allows their use by the U.S. military in war zones under limited
defensive circumstances and only with the approval of the president or a
senior officer designated by the president.
"It is not allowed as a method or means of warfare," said Michael
Schmitt, professor of international law at the Naval War College in
Newport, R.I. "There are very, very strict restrictions on the use of CS
gas in a war zone."
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