Blackwater trial: 15 minutes of gunfire which left 17 dead

When a Blackwater convoy approached Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone just after midday on 16 September, 2007, the hundreds of Iraqi drivers inching through the choking traffic witnessed a familiar scene.

Iraqi guards waved through three armoured trucks towards a military lane spilling off Nissour Square in the central city. Any private vehicle that even tries to enter is often fired on.

Abdul Wahad Abdul-Kahad remembers grinding to a stop as non-Iraqi guards cleared a path for a second Blackwater convoy. A helicopter hovered overhead.

“It was about noon”, he recalled. ”I heard a bursts of fire enter the car in front of me. It caught fire and a lady and her son were killed. I tried to drive away down the wrong side of the road, but they shot at me and hit me in the arm.”

There was screaming and blood all around as Iraqi police and soldiers tried to return fire on the Blackwater guards who had started the shooting.

“The shooting may have continued for 15 minutes,” Abdul-Kahad said. “It’s hard to be sure. I was crouched and bleeding in my car for an hour until Iraqi guards came to rescue me. I still haven’t recovered from what I went through.”

An Iraqi police officer who cleared a path for the first Blackwater crew to enter the square said the shooting had been unprovoked.

“The man in the third car fired three or four shots randomly,” the police officer, Salman, told his American lawyers who provided a videotape of his account to the public broadcaster NPR. He said the first shooter was “big, had a moustache and was white”.

Salman saw the car in front of Abdul Kahad catch fire. “Boom, boom, boom,” he said. “The car had started moving very slowly by itself because it was an automatic car. It was moving toward the square, and at this moment they started shooting the car with big machine guns. And then the car exploded.”

When the scene was cleared, 17 people were dead. Apart from two Iraqi security officers, all were civilians.

The shooting became a flashpoint for a city that had become as fatigued by the excesses of foreign companies as it had by the year’s incessant violence. Resentment boiled over at security company convoys that operated with impunity throughout the lawless streets.

After the shooting, Iraqis took to the airwaves in large numbers to complain about security companies, which they saw as a foreboding presence and, in some ways, a throwback to the Saddam days when state-sanctioned gunslingers could shoot at will.

As the violence grew throughout 2004/05, security details rarely hesitated before firing a burst from a machine gun at any car that even inadvertently strayed close. They operated outside the law. But even worse was a strong feeling that the companies operated without respect for Iraqi citizens.

For almost seven years, Iraqis had slammed their brakes at the hulking armoured convoys of security firms that terrified civilians. The most infamous name was Blackwater.

Soon after the fall of Baghdad, security companies arrived in droves seeking the lucrative contracts that were soon to flow in helping to raise a state from the post-Saddam ruins.

Blackwater won the lead contract to defend key US government institutions, including the Baghdad embassy. Its numbers grew rapidly, drawing largely on ex-US military special operations units. At $600 per day, it was fast, if not always easy money for ex-soldiers used to one-third of the salary, worse conditions and often higher risk.

A resentment quickly grew in the highly competitive, macho private security scene that Blackwater operatives were the praetorian guard, the rest were foot soldiers. Blackwater was soon the biggest private army in Iraq and could have laid a claim on being the biggest and most powerful private force anywhere in the world.

“They came and they went, as they should have,” said Rihab Abdul Karim, whose nephew was killed in Nissour Square. “They were arrogant with the power they had. They thought they answered to no one. And with this verdict, maybe they were right.” –

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