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New Evidence That Blackwater Guards Took No Fire

New York Times (2007-10-13) James Glanz

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New Evidence That Blackwater Guards Took No Fire

Blackwater Shooting Site
The view on Friday of Nisour Square in Baghdad from the roof at the southwest corner. On Sept. 16, Blackwater vehicles were on the south side of the square, at the lower right.

New York Times
October 13, 2007

This article was reported by James Glanz, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Michael Kamber and written by Mr. Glanz.

BAGHDAD, Oct. 12 — Fresh accounts of the Blackwater shooting last month, given by three rooftop witnesses and by American soldiers who arrived shortly after the gunfire ended, cast new doubt Friday on statements by Blackwater guards that they were responding to armed insurgents when Iraqi investigators say 17 Iraqis were killed at a Baghdad intersection.

The three witnesses, Kurds on a rooftop overlooking the scene, said they had observed no gunfire that could have provoked the shooting by Blackwater guards. American soldiers who arrived minutes later found shell casings from guns used normally by American contractors, as well as by the American military.

The Kurdish witnesses are important because they had the advantage of an unobstructed view and because, collectively, they observed the shooting at Nisour Square from start to finish, free from the terror and confusion that might have clouded accounts of witnesses at street level. Moreover, because they are pro-American, their accounts have a credibility not always extended to Iraqi Arabs, who have been more hostile to the American presence.

Their statements, made in interviews with The New York Times, appeared to challenge a State Department account that a Blackwater vehicle had been disabled in the shooting and had to be towed away. Since those initial accounts, Blackwater and the State Department have consistently refused to comment on the substance of the case.

The Kurdish witnesses said that they saw no one firing at the guards at any time during the event, an observation corroborated by the forensic evidence of the shell casings. Two of the witnesses also said all the Blackwater vehicles involved in the shooting drove away under their own power.

The Kurds, who work for a political party whose building looks directly down on the square, said they had looked for any evidence that the American security guards were responding to an attack, but found none.

“I call it a massacre,” said Omar H. Waso, one of the witnesses and a senior official at the party, which is called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. “It is illegal. They used the law of the jungle.”

Many of the American soldiers were similarly appalled. While Blackwater has said its guards were attacked by automatic gunfire, the soldiers did not find any casings from the sort of guns typically used by insurgents or by Iraqi security forces, according to an American military official briefed on the findings of the unit that arrived at the scene about 20 minutes after the Blackwater convoy left. That analysis of forensic evidence at the scene was first reported Friday by The Washington Post.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, added that soldiers had found clear evidence that the Blackwater guards were not been threatened and also opened fire on civilians who had tried to flee. “The cartridges and casings we found were all associated with coalition forces and contractors,” the official said. “The only brass we found where somebody fired weapons were ones from contractors.”

The case has angered many in the military who believe that the conduct of the security guards makes the troops’ jobs harder. “If our people had done this,” another American military official said, “they would be court-martialed.”

The shooting, on Sept. 16, and the deaths of two Iraqi women in a shooting by a different security company on Tuesday, have provoked anger at politically potent levels of Iraqi society. In the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, officials affiliated with Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for sanctions against the companies.

In Karbala, a spokesman for the ayatollah inveighed against “the cheapening of Iraqi blood” and called for Parliament to take action. In a legacy of orders handed down during post-invasion American rule here, Western contractors essentially have immunity to Iraqi law.

None of the roughly two dozen witnesses previously interviewed by Iraqi investigators said that they saw or heard anyone but the Blackwater guards fire during the shooting, which Iraq says killed 17 and wounded 27. Still, because nearly all of those witnesses were in the field of fire, their accounts could conceivably have been skewed by the terror and confusion of the moment.

The Kurdish witnesses on the rooftop said they had not been interviewed by Iraqi investigators. They said they had been visited by American investigators, but had not been fully interviewed.

After the shootings, American soldiers found plenty of empty bullet casings 7.62 millimeters in diameter. Had the 7.62-millimeter casings been from an AK-47 rifle, a common insurgent and Iraqi police weapon, they would have been 39 millimeters long. Had they been from a PKC machine gun, another common Iraqi weapon, they would have been 54 millimeters long. The soldiers did not find any of those, the military official said.

Instead, the official said, the casings were 51 millimeters long, the length used by NATO weapons, including the M-240 machine gun, a standard automatic weapon used by the America military and American security contractors, the official said. The soldiers also found empty 5.56-millimeter casings of the type used by the M-4 and M-16 rifles that American troops and contractors bear.

The F.B.I. has been interviewing soldiers from the unit that responded to the scene, the Third Battalion of the 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, which is part of the Second Brigade of the First Cavalry Division, to collect information in its investigation of the shooting, the official said.

Only one of the Kurdish witnesses, a guard who would give his name only as Sabah, saw the first shots fired by the Blackwater guards into a white sedan, killing a man and his mother and setting the events in motion.

Two others, Mr. Waso and his driver, Sirwan Ali, went to the roof after the shooting started and observed long enough to see the Blackwater vehicles leave the square. Eventually both went down to help the victims, they said. All three men have military backgrounds.

When asked if anything had occurred to provoke the initial shots from Blackwater, Sabah said: “Nothing at all. No mortars. No shooting.”

All he saw, Sabah said, was that the white sedan “moved a little bit and they started shooting.”

As events unfolded and the Blackwater guards unleashed a storm of gunfire into the crowded square, Mr. Waso and Mr. Ali both said, they could neither hear nor see any return fire. “It was one-sided shooting from one direction,” Mr. Waso said. “There wasn’t any return fire.”

Mr. Waso said that what he saw was not only disturbing, but also in some cases incomprehensible. He said that the guards kept firing long after it was clear that there was no resistance. People were shot while trying to flee, he said. One man ran from a Volkswagen and the guards shot him in the head from behind, Mr. Waso said.

Finally there was a pause of a few seconds in the shooting as the Blackwater convoy prepared to leave, he said. Then, Mr. Waso said with a look of disbelief on his face, at least one Blackwater guard began firing again, this time at a red bus full of people on the western rim of the square.

“The glass was all broken,” Mr. Waso said, struggling to describe the bus after the firing resumed. “Women and children, all of them were shouting and crying.”

Some of the people who survived in the bus were tended to later at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan building, he said.

After that last burst of gunfire in the square, Mr. Waso said, all four of the Blackwater vehicles left. As far as he could see, they drove away under their own power, he said.

In the end, Mr. Waso said, he went down and asked Iraqi national guard soldiers to chase the Blackwater team.

“Leave them and try to follow that company before they get away,” Mr. Waso said he told a soldier. “They killed innocent people for no reason.”

Reporting was contributed by Wisam A. Habib, Ahmad Fadam, Qais Mizher and Alissa J. Rubin.

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Title New Evidence That Blackwater Guards Took No Fire
Publisher New York Times
Author James Glanz
Pub Date 2007-10-13
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Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Linked Article
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Topic revision: r1 - 21 Aug 2008, RaymondLutz
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