IRAQ: Iraqi Report Says Blackwater Guards Fired First

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

A preliminary Iraqi report on a shooting
involving an American diplomatic motorcade said Tuesday that
Blackwater security guards were not ambushed, as the company reported,
but instead fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman's call
to stop, killing a couple and their infant.




The report, by the Ministry of Interior, was presented to the Iraqi
cabinet and, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account
offered by Blackwater USA that the guards were responding to gunfire
by militants. The report said Blackwater helicopters had also fired.
The Ministry of Defense said 20 Iraqis had been killed, a far higher
number than had been reported before.




In a sign of the seriousness of the standoff, the American Embassy
here suspended diplomatic missions outside the Green Zone and
throughout Iraq on Tuesday.




"There was not shooting against the convoy," said Ali al-Dabbagh,
the Iraqi government's spokesman. "There was no fire from anyone
in the square."




A State Department spokesman, Edgar Vasquez, said he had not heard of
the report and repeated that the department was conducting an
investigation supported by the American military. A spokeswoman for
Blackwater did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.




"Let these folks do the investigation and get all the facts," Mr.
Vasquez said, "and if department procedures were not followed, after
the facts have been gathered we would decide what action to
take."




The shooting, which took place on Sunday, has angered Iraqi officials
and touched off a harsh debate about private security companies, which
operate outside Iraqi law, a privilege extended to them by Americans
officials while Iraq's government was still under American
administration. Blackwater, which guards all top American officials
here, had its work suspended, and Iraqi officials agreed to rewrite
the rules to make the companies accountable.




"We do understand that the security companies are subject to high
levels of threat and they do a good job at protection, but this does
not entitle them to immunity from Iraqi laws," Mr. Dabbagh said.
"This is what the Iraqi government would like to review."




He said the Iraqi and American governments had set up a joint
committee to investigate the deaths.




American Embassy officials had said Monday that the Blackwater guards
had been responding to a car bomb, but Mr. Dabbagh said the bomb was
so far away that it could not possibly have been a reason for the
convoy to begin shooting.




Instead, he said, the convoy had initiated the shooting when a car did
not heed a police officer and moved into an intersection.




"The traffic policeman was trying to open the road for them," he
said. "It was a crowded square. But one small car did not stop. It
was moving very slowly. They shot against the couple and their child.
They started shooting randomly."




In video shot shortly after the episode, the child appeared to have
burned to the mother's body after the car caught fire, according to
an official who saw it.




In interviews on Tuesday, six Iraqis who had been in the area at the
time of the shooting, including a man who was wounded and an Iraqi
Army soldier who helped rescue people, offered roughly similar
versions.




The Iraqi soldier, who said he was standing at a checkpoint on the
edge of the square, said he thought the convoy believed the small car
was a suicide bomber and opened fire. According to the wounded man,
recuperating in Yarmouk Hospital, the car with the family was driving
on the wrong side of the road.




The convoy began throwing nonlethal sound bombs, several witnesses
said, to keep people in the area away. That drew fire from Iraqi Army
soldiers manning watchtowers that are part of an Iraqi Army base on
the square. Iraqi police officers, witnesses said, also appeared to be
shooting.



The Iraqi soldier, who did not give his name but said he was from a
company of Iraqi commandos, said he saw another soldier trying to
motion to the convoy to move on, but he was shot as well.




Sean McCormack, the spokesman for the State Department, said in a
briefing that contractors "are subject to Department of State rules
of engagement."




"These are defensive in nature," he said. When contractors and
employees are attacked, he added, they "will respond with graduated
use of force, proportionate to the kind of fire and attack that
they're coming under."




The Iraqis' accounts have not been verified, but the anger in their
telling served to reinforce the feeling among Iraqis here that private
security companies care little for Iraqi lives. In a war where
perceptions are paramount, the effect is poisonous.




"They are more powerful than the government," the Iraqi soldier
said. "No one can try them. Where is the government in this?"




For Safaa Rabee, an engineer in Newcastle, England, whose 75-year-old
father was shot dead while driving home from grocery shopping on Aug.
13 in Hilla in southern Iraq, the immunity was particularly galling.
Mr. Rabee said his father had pulled over and waited as a convoy of
sport utility vehicles zoomed past, lights and sirens flashing, a
familiar routine for Iraqis, but when he pulled back out, guards in
the last car of the convoy opened fire.




Mr. Rabee and his brother discussed it with the Hilla police chief,
who said the convoy was an American diplomatic one from Najaf, another
southern city, and also with a sympathetic American colonel, who
offered small financial compensation.




The police chief said the security guards in the convoy were
Blackwater, Mr. Rabee said, though he does not know for sure if that
was the case.




"I said to him that I'll follow the killer anywhere in the world,
even in American law," Mr. Rabee said by telephone from England.
"He said: 'I understand you are angry but you can't do anything.
They're under our protection.' I said, 'Do you think that's
fair?' " For the family, Mr. Rabee said, the killing felt no
different from that of Mr. Rabee's brother, the owner of a fish
farm, who was executed by militants just south of Baghdad in 2005. The
family pursued the case against his father's killers in court, but
the case was closed.




In the clubby atmosphere of private security firms in Iraq, senior
members of rival companies are often reluctant to criticize
Blackwater.




But among the rank and file of security contractors, Blackwater guards
are regularly ridiculed as cowboys who are relentlessly and
pointlessly aggressive, carry excessive weaponry and do not appear to
have top-of-the-line training.




Passing Blackwater convoys sometimes intimidates even Westerners, who
fear coming under attack if they make a wrong move.




The Iraqi government said it had revoked Blackwater's license. But
it appeared that the company had not possessed one in many months,
according to a security official in Baghdad, but had begun work on
getting one in spring of 2007.




The Iraqi government has changed hands several times, throwing up new
hurdles for companies to register, and by the fall of 2006, when the
process changed again, many simply stopped trying, the official said.
Currently, about 25 companies are formally licensed, the official
said. Blackwater is not among them.




One private security official said Blackwater had been at odds with
the Ministry of Interior over licensing, and drew more ill will when a
guard killed a ministry bodyguard some time ago.

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  • 116 Human Rights