Blackwater Guards Killed 16 as US Touted Progress

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McClatchy Newspapers

Blackwater Guards Killed 16 as US Touted Progress

by
Leila Fadel

BADGHDAD - On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that things were getting better, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.0928 03

A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was in the capital to drop off and pick up paperwork at the central office near busy al Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work. U.S. officials often pass through the square in heavily guarded convoys on their way to other parts of Baghdad.

As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.

Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she'd held in her arms fluttered down the street.

Before the shooting stopped, four other people were killed in what would be the beginning of eight days of violence that Iraqi officials say bolster their argument that Blackwater should be banned from working in Iraq.

During the ensuing week, as Crocker and Petraeus told Congress that the surge of more U.S. troops to Iraq was beginning to work and President Bush gave a televised address in which he said "ordinary life was beginning to return" to Baghdad, Blackwater security guards shot at least 43 people on crowded Baghdad streets. At least 16 of those people died.

Two Blackwater guards died in one of the incidents, which was triggered when a roadside bomb struck a Blackwater vehicle.

Still, it was an astounding amount of violence attributed to Blackwater. In the same eight-day period, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers, other acts of violence across the embattled capital claimed the lives of 32 people and left 87 injured, not including unidentified bodies found dumped on Baghdad's streets.

The best known of that week's incidents took place the following Sunday, Sept. 16, when Blackwater guards killed 11 and wounded 12 at the busy al Nisour traffic circle in central Baghdad.

Iraqi officials said the guards were unprovoked when they opened fire on a white car carrying three people, including a baby. All died. The security guards then fired at other nearby vehicles, including a minibus loaded with passengers, killing a mother of eight. An Iraqi soldier also died.

In Blackwater's only statement regarding the Sept. 16 incident, Anne Tyrell, the company's spokeswoman, denied that the dead were civilians. "The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies," she said in an e-mail, "and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire."

A joint commission of five U.S. State Department officials, three U.S. military officials and eight Iraqis has been formed to investigate the incident, though almost two weeks later, the commission has yet to meet. A U.S. Embassy statement on Thursday, the first official written comment from the embassy since the al Nisour shooting, said that the group was "preparing" to meet.

Blackwater and the U.S. Embassy didn't respond to requests for information about the other incidents.

But interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors of each incident describe similar circumstances in which Blackwater guards took aggressive action against civilians who seemed to pose no threat.

"They killed her in cold blood," Hussein Jumaa Hassan, 30, a parking lot attendant, said of Hussein.

Hassan pointed to the bullet-pocked concrete column behind him. He'd hidden behind it.

"I was boiling with anger, and I wished that I had a weapon in my hands in those minutes," he said. "They wanted to kill us all."

Anyone who moved was shot until the convoy left the square, witnesses said. Also among the dead was Kadhim Gayes, a city hall guard.

It took two days for Hussein's family to retrieve her body from the morgue. Before they could, her sister signed a sheet acknowledging the contents of her purse, which had been collected by security guards at the Baghdad city hall - a Samsung cell phone, a change purse with six keys and 37,000 Iraqi dinars ($30), gold bracelets, a notebook, pens, and photos of her and her children.

Three days later, Blackwater guards were back in al Khilani Square, Iraqi government officials said. This time, there was no shooting, witnesses said. Instead, the Blackwater guards hurled frozen bottles of water into store windows and windshields, breaking the glass.

Ibrahim Rubaie, the deputy security director at a nearby Baghdad city government office building, said it's common for Blackwater guards to shoot as they drive through the square. He said Blackwater guards also shot and wounded people in the square on June 21, though there are no official reports of such an incident.

On Sept. 13 - the same day Bush gave his "ordinary life" speech - Blackwater guards were escorting State Department officials down Palestine Street near the Shiite enclave of Sadr City when a roadside bomb detonated, ripping through one of the Blackwater vehicles.

The blast killed two Blackwater guards. As other guards went to retrieve the dead, they fired wildly in several directions, witnesses said.

Mohammed Mazin was at home when he heard the bang, which shattered one of his windows.

Then he heard gunfire, and he and his son, Laith, went to the roof to see what was going on.

What they saw were security contractors shooting in different directions as a helicopter hovered overhead. Bullets flew through his home's windows, he said.

No civilians were killed that day, but five were wounded, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry.

The following Sunday, Blackwater guards opened fire as the State Department convoy they were escorting crossed in front of stopped traffic at the al Nisour traffic circle.

While U.S. officials have offered no explanation of what occurred that day, witnesses and Iraqi investigators agree that the guards' first target was a white car that either hadn't quite stopped or was trying to nudge its way to the front of traffic.

In the car were a man whose name is uncertain; Mahasin Muhsin, a mother and doctor; and Muhsin's young son. The guards first shot the man, who was driving. As Muhsin screamed, a Blackwater guard shot her. The car exploded, and Muhsin and the child burned, witnesses said.

Afrah Sattar, 27, was on a bus approaching the square when she saw the guards fire on the white car. She and her mother, Ghania Hussein, were headed to the Certificate of Identification Office in Baghdad to pick up proof of Sattar's Iraqi citizenship for an upcoming trip to a religious shrine in Iran.

When she saw the gunmen turn toward the bus, Sattar looked at her mother in fear. "They're going to shoot at us, Mama," she said. Her mother hugged her close. Moments later, a bullet pierced her mother's skull and another struck her shoulder, Sattar recalled.

As her mother's body went limp, blood dripped onto Sattar's head, still cradled in her mother's arms.

"Mother, mother," she called out. No answer. She hugged her mother's body and kissed her lips and began to pray, "We belong to God and we return to God." The bus emptied, and Sattar sat alone at the back, with her mother's bleeding body.

"I'm lost now, I'm lost," she said days later in her simple two-bedroom home. Ten people lived there; now there are nine.

"They are killers," she said of the Blackwater guards. "I swear to God, not one bullet was shot at them. Why did they shoot us? My mother didn't carry a weapon."

Downstairs, her father, Sattar Ghafil Slom al Kaabi, 67, sat beneath a smiling picture of his wife and recalled their 40-year love story and how they raised eight children together. On the way to the holy city of Najaf to bury her, he'd stopped his car, with her coffin strapped to the top. He got out and stood beside the coffin. He wanted to be with her a little longer.

"I loved her more than anything," he said, his voice wavering. "Now that she is dead, I love her more."

(Special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Hussein Kadhim and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)

© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers

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