Blackwater Shootings 'Murder,' Iraq Says
BAGHDAD - The Iraqi prime minister's office said Sunday that the government's investigation had determined that Blackwater USA private security guards who shot Iraqi civilians three weeks ago in a Baghdad square sprayed gunfire in nearly every direction, committed "deliberate murder" and should be punished accordingly.
Iraqi investigators, supported by Iraqi witness accounts, have said unofficially that they could not find evidence of any attack on the Blackwater guards that might have provoked the shooting on Nisour Square, which the Iraqis say killed 17 and wounded 27. But the statement by Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the prime minister, is the first indication that the government considers its investigation completed and the shootings unprovoked.
"This is a deliberate crime against civilians," Mr. Dabbagh said. "It should be tried in court and the victims should be compensated."
Those conclusions contradict Blackwater's original statement on the shooting, which said that a convoy operated by the company's guards "acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack." The Iraqi findings are also at odds with initial assertions by the State Department that the convoy had received small-arms fire.
Blackwater provides security for American diplomats in Iraq. A convoy carrying diplomats was approaching the square when a second Blackwater convoy, positioned on the square in advance to control traffic, opened fire.
"Not even a brick was thrown at them," said Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim, the Iraqi defense minister. "And until now we have been examining this matter."
But in an indication of the legal uncertainties surrounding the case in Iraq, where the law gives American contractors virtual immunity, Mr. Dabbagh said decisions on specific legal steps would wait until the Americans completed their own investigation of the shooting and conferred with the Iraqis. It is not clear which provisions of American law would apply in this case.
American officials have cautioned against drawing conclusions until evidence from all witnesses in the case, including the Blackwater guards, has been compiled.
Mr. Jassim said that little information had come from the Americans and that Iraqi investigators had not been granted access to the guards. But he said the Americans had promised to cooperate.
In previously undisclosed details in the government's final report, the Iraqi police documented that Blackwater guards shot in almost every direction, killing or wounding people in a near 360-degree circle around Nisour Square.
The thick file amassed for the investigation asserts that bullets reached bystanders who were as far as 200 feet away and nearly on the opposite side of the square.
The police investigation also shows that a second shooting, in which one person was killed and two wounded, occurred about 600 feet from the initial one on the opposite side of the square, along the departure route that the Blackwater team took from the first shooting.
Although American diplomats have worked with personal security companies for most of the time since the American invasion in March 2003, it appears that State Department officials only now have started to thoroughly look at every aspect of the relationship.
As part of that effort, Patrick Kennedy, who heads the State Department's team reviewing the relationship with personal security companies, met in recent days with the private security industry in Iraq. He posed nearly 20 questions to representatives of the firms that make clear that American diplomats have been largely in the dark about some of the most basic procedures of the people who protect them. A list of the questions was provided by a participant.
Using abbreviations for the Department of State and personal security company, among the questions he posed were: "Do we provide weapons for P.S.C.'s? Does the D.O.S. travel outside the Green Zone too much? What is the ultimate method of discipline for P.S.C. individuals?"
"They were in complete receive mode the entire time," said an American official after meeting with Mr. Kennedy and his colleagues. "They were saying, 'Tell me more, tell me more, tell me more.'"
A joint commission of American and Iraqi senior officials held their first meeting on Sunday with the goal of agreeing on recommendations to ensure the safety of Iraqi civilians when they encounter personal security guards escorting American diplomats, a statement from the American Embassy said.
An American official who has met with Blackwater officials in the past several days said the company appeared to be making plans for a rapprochement with the Iraqi government.
Despite calls from some Iraqi politicians to ban Blackwater because of several encounters including the Sept. 16 shootings, the company is making long-term plans to stay, the official said.
"The first thing they need to do is reach out to the host nation, but I don't think they are going to do that before the United States has concluded its investigation," the official said. Police investigators, some of whom arrived at the scene of the shooting when it was still under way because the National Police headquarters is just a couple of hundred feet from the square, said they were stunned at the bloodshed. "They were shooting in every direction," one investigator said. "All four Blackwater vehicles were shooting."
A traffic policeman, Sarhan Thiab, who was directing traffic in the square at the time, said that when he ran to help a man and his mother, who were among those first shot, the Blackwater guards began shooting toward him and another policeman, who was similarly trying to aid the victims. The policemen took shelter behind a traffic kiosk.
Mr. Thiab said that as they looked to their right, at the road entering the square from the west, they saw the first of the Blackwater vehicles shooting at a red bus stopped on the edge of the square. Also shot were two cars on the parallel road that heads west. Two people were wounded in a silver Toyota and one was killed in another car, a silver Hundai, Mr. Thiab said.
In the center of the square about 100 laborers were repairing a tunnel and beautifying the central roundabout with shrubs and marigolds and other border flowers. Two laborers were wounded by bullets that appeared to have been fired toward the square's center.
At the edge of the roundabout the bullets hit an old man riding a motor scooter, Mr. Thiab said.
"The fourth vehicle killed the old man," he said. "There was a lot of traffic and he was trying to go around it and they shot him."
Qais Mizher contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company