Blackwater Shooting Highlights A US, Iraq Culture Clash

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The Los Angeles Times

Blackwater Shooting Highlights A US, Iraq Culture Clash

by
Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman

BAGHDAD - He refused to take the Americans' blood money.

Mohammed Hafidh Abdul-Razzaq had been summoned by U.S. Embassy officials who wanted to make amends for the killing of his 10-year-old son. The boy died during a shooting involving employees of Blackwater Worldwide, the U.S. security firm.0504 05 1

Deputy Chief of Mission Patricia A. Butenis told him that she was sorry for what had happened, Abdul-Razzaq recalled. She gave him a sealed envelope. It had his name written on it. Abdul-Razzaq pushed it away.

"I told her I refuse to receive any amount," the auto parts dealer said. "My father is a tribal sheik, and we're not used to taking any amount unless the concerned will come and confess and apologize. Then we will talk about compensation."

In September, Blackwater contractors protecting an embassy mission killed 17 Iraqis, including Abdul-Razzaq's boy, and injured at least two dozen in a widely publicized incident in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Blackwater officials have said their workers feared they were under attack; Iraqi officials and witnesses called it a massacre.

U.S. officials say the investigation of the shooting continues, though they have been tight-lipped about details. An FBI report is due this year. In April, the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract for another year, a move that enraged many Iraqis affected by the killings.

Far from bringing justice and closure, the investigations underline the frictions between Americans and Iraqis that have plagued the five-year U.S. presence. The shooting and its aftermath show the deep disconnect between the American legal process and the traditional culture of Iraq, between the courtroom and the tribal diwan.

U.S. officials painstakingly examine evidence and laws while attempting to satisfy victims' claims through cash compensation.

But traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all. If a man kills or badly injures someone in an accident, both families convene a tribal summit. The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.

"Our system is so different from theirs," said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. "An honor settlement has to be both financial and it has to have the right symbolism. We would never accept their way of doing things, and they don't accept ours."

Citing confidentiality requirements, U.S. officials declined to speak publicly about the Blackwater investigations. Iraqi victims are the only witnesses to the behind-the-scenes legal process who are willing to talk. Their accounts of the investigation jibed individually as well as with the typical narrative of U.S. criminal investigation.

Under U.S. military doctrine, rules of engagement allow U.S. soldiers and contractors in a combat zone to defend themselves if they fear they are under attack. The rules tighten and loosen as conditions on the ground shift. The Nisoor Square incident took place at the end of what had been one of the worst periods of violence in Iraq.

The Blackwater team says it was justified in firing to protect itself and the State Department officials it was guarding. Speaking before Congress, Blackwater owner Erik Prince said the team was doing its duty in the face of an onslaught, and he described the square as "a terrorist crime scene."

Prince offended those who say they were simply going about their day's chores.

Baraa Sadoon Ismail, 29, a father of two, was severely injured in the gunfire while driving to a relative's house. Doctors told him he had 60 fragments of bullet lodged in his abdomen. He said he had undergone surgery to remove three pieces that threatened major organs.

He has met with eight committees of investigators so far, including twice with the FBI. Teams of three or four people would sit in a room with him. They would show him an aerial map on a table. They asked how and when and where the shooting started. Where was this victim? Where were you?

Several times he asked about his car, which was shot up in the incident. Investigators told him it was still needed for the investigation. They wanted to know whether he planned to ask for compensation. He was miffed.

"I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious," he said he told them.

Physician Haitham Rubaie doesn't want money either. What he wants above all is justice for his wife, a doctor, and his son, a medical student, who died.

He rebuffed attempts to have a donation to an orphanage made in his family's name. No amount of cash, no matter how well-intentioned, would sweep this under the rug.

"I don't want any help from you," he said he told them. "If you want to help the orphans, you give them money yourselves."

If North Carolina-based Blackwater wanted to negotiate, it would have to apologize, publicly and loudly, he said.

"Let them apologize by saying those were innocent people," Rubaie said. "Then we will be ready for understanding."

Rubaie couldn't believe that with the investigation still going on, the State Department would renew the Blackwater contract.

"Such decisions abuse us," he said. "I appeal to the American ambassador: Just as he considers the safety of the American diplomats, he must also consider the safety of the Iraqi citizen in an equal way."

Abdul-Razzaq remembered rushing his son to a hospital, and being told an hour later that he was dead. At a police station two days later, U.S. investigators apologized while emphasizing that Blackwater personnel worked for a private company, not the U.S. military, he said.

"I told them that if they didn't fall under [the military's] protection, I would have killed them with my teeth right here on the street," he said.

They pulled out an aerial map of Nisoor Square.

Days went by. Nothing happened. A day before the Oct. 12 Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Abdul-Razzaq got a call from an Iraqi official asking him to meet with FBI investigators. He resisted. He was planning to visit his son's grave.

But the official pressed him: The FBI had come all the way from the U.S. and would be there only a few days. Abdul-Razzaq relented.

They wanted distances and positions. They asked about his height, weight, skin and eye color, his job, his customers, his employees and number of children. They asked about exit wounds, how his son was injured. The rage welled up.

"It was a massacre," Abdul-Razzaq said of the incident. "It is as if they came with the sole intent of eradicating all -- women and children, they had to die."

The investigators requested his car to examine bullet fragments. He towed it to an entrance of the Green Zone, the U.S.-protected administrative headquarters of Baghdad, and invited a CNN team to film the transfer.

A few weeks later, he was summoned to another meeting at the U.S. Embassy with Butenis. He said she asked whether he wanted to press charges or receive compensation, how much he wanted and what terms he demanded for a settlement.

"I told them I didn't expect to be compensated a large sum," he recalled. "No amount of money would return my son. I told them I would feel better only if I knew the people responsible for this crime are brought to trial."

Two months ago, an intermediary on behalf of Blackwater again offered him money as a goodwill gesture, he said. Again he refused.

Two days later, he said, he met with a Blackwater representative. The man offered him $20,000, Abdul-Razzaq said, "not as compensation, but as a gift." Abdul-Razzaq said he refused again.

"If you write out an apology for me and confess your crime," he recalled saying, "I will give you a similar paper with my signature promising not to press charges."

He said the official told him such an arrangement was impossible. His company's lawyers in America would never sign off on such a proposal.

daragahi@latimes.com

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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