It started out as a family errand: Ahmed Haithem Ahmed was driving his mother, Mohassin, to pick up his father from the hospital where he worked as a pathologist. As they approached Nisour Square at midday on Sept. 16, they did not know that a bomb had gone off nearby or that a convoy of four armored vehicles carrying Blackwater guards armed with automatic rifles was approaching.
Moments later a bullet tore through Ahmed's head, he slumped, and the car rolled forward. Then Blackwater guards responded with a barrage of gunfire and explosive weapons, leaving 17 dead and 24 wounded - a higher toll than previously thought, according to Iraqi investigators.
Interviews with 12 Iraqi eyewitnesses, several Iraqi investigators and a U.S. official familiar with a U.S. investigation of the Sept. 16 shootings offer new insights into the gravity of the incident in Nisour Square. And they are difficult to square with the explanation offered initially by Blackwater officials that their guards were responding proportionately to an attack on the streets around the square.
The new details include these:
-- A deadly cascade of events began when a single bullet apparently fired by a Blackwater guard killed an Iraqi man whose weight probably remained on the accelerator and propelled the car forward as the passenger, the man's mother, clutched him and screamed.
-- The car continued to roll toward the convoy, which responded with an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions.
-- Minutes after that shooting stopped, a Blackwater convoy moved north from the square and opened fire on another line of traffic a few hundred yards away, in a previously unreported separate incident, investigators and witnesses say.
The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle. Not one witness heard or saw any gunfire coming from Iraqis around the square.
As the gunfire continued, at least one of the Blackwater guards began screaming, "No! No! No!" and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting, according to an Iraqi lawyer who was stuck in traffic and was soon shot in the back as he tried to flee. The account of the struggle among the Blackwater guards corroborates preliminary findings of the U.S. investigation.
Still, although the series of events pieced together by the Iraqis may be correct, important elements could still be missing from that account, according to the U.S. official familiar with the ongoing U.S. investigation into the shootings.
Among the questions still to be answered, the official said, is whether at any time during the incident nearby Iraqi security forces ever began firing, possibly leading the Blackwater convoy to believe they were under attack and therefore justified in returning fire.
Blackwater has said that its guards were fired upon and responded appropriately.
The Blackwater convoy was in the square to control traffic for a second convoy that was approaching from the south. The second convoy was bringing diplomats who had been evacuated from a meeting after a bomb went off near the compound where the meeting was taking place.
The incident in the square began with a short burst of bullets that witnesses described as unprovoked. A traffic policeman, Sarhan Thiab, saw that a young man in a car had been hit. In the line of traffic, that car was third in line from the intersection where the convoy had positioned itself.
"We tried to help him," Thiab said. "I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out, 'My son, my son. Help me, help me.' "
Another traffic policeman rushed to the driver's side to try to get her son out of the car, but the car was still rolling forward, according to a taxi driver close by who gave his name as Abu Mariam.
Then Blackwater guards opened fire with a barrage of bullets, according to the police and numerous witnesses. Ahmed's mother, Mohassin Kadhim, appears to have been shot to death as she cradled her son in her arms. Moments later the car caught on fire after the Blackwater guards fired a grenade into the vehicle.
The taxi driver was a few feet ahead of Mohassin Kadhim's car when he heard the first gunshots. He was aware of cars behind him trying to back out of the street or turn around and drive away from the square. He tried frantically to turn his car but ran into the curb.
He pulled himself over to the passenger side, opened the door and crawled out, flattening his body to the ground. He said his left leg was shot.
Cars were struggling to get out of the line of fire and many people were abandoning their vehicles altogether. The scene turned hellish.
"The shooting started like rain; everyone escaped his car," said Fareed Walid Hassan, a truck driver.
He saw a woman dragging her child. "He was around 10 or 11. He was dead. She was pulling him by one hand to get him away. She hoped that he was still alive," he said.
"Some people were trying to escape by crawling, some people were killed in front of me," said Jabber Salman, a lawyer on his way to the Ministry of Justice.
As Salman tried to drive away from the shooting, bullets hit his neck, shoulders, left forearm and lower back.
Iraqi investigators believe that during the incident, Blackwater helicopters flew overhead and fired into the cars from above. They say that at least one of the car roofs had bullet holes through them.
Minutes after the first shootings, a Blackwater convoy arrived at the other side of the square, where civilian traffic was also backed up, and shot into cars, according to an Iraqi official who is a member of the investigative committee set up by the Iraqi government.
"I found three people from that incident in Khadimiya hospital, one died and two were injured," the Iraqi official said.
© 2007 The New York Times