Death From All Sides: An extensive evidence file assembled by the Iraqi National Police after the controversial Blackwater shooting suggests that the private contractors opened fire unprovoked from the ground and the sky.
News Week (2007-09-30) Kevin Peraino
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By Kevin Peraino
Updated: 9:21 a.m. ET Sept. 30, 2007
Sept. 30, 2007 - Since the fatal Sept. 16 Blackwater USA shooting in Baghdad’s Nasoor Square, officials from the private security company have insisted that their guards were responding to fire from “armed enemies.” Yet an extensive evidence file put together by the Iraqi National Police and obtained by NEWSWEEK—including documents, maps, sworn witness statements and police video footage—appears to contradict the contractors’ version of events. A confidential incident report, which has been provided by Iraqi National Police investigators to American military and civilian officials, concludes that the Blackwater vehicles “opened fire crazily and randomly, without any reason.”
A nine-minute police video made in the moments after the shooting shows helicopters similar to those used by Blackwater still hovering over the wreckage of charred, smoking and bullet-pocked cars. (For an edited clip of the video, click here
.) The graphic images include footage of burned human remains and show the street littered with brass bullet casings. They also show what appears to be a police officer waving a pistol at the scene; the footage was captured by a different police officer, who had run over from the nearby Iraqi National Police headquarters. (Portions of the video have been previously broadcast; it was recorded without sound.)
Iraqi National Police investigators also believe that Blackwater's helicopters fired on the cars from above, according to confidential police documents and interviews with senior police officials. A memo written on Sept. 17 by the lead Iraqi police investigator states that shortly after the shooting began, “helicopters opened fire from the air toward the cars and civilians.” Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, the commander of the Iraqi National Police, told NEWSWEEK that the trajectory of some of the bullet wounds could only have been caused by fire from the air. “If anyone moved—whenever they saw someone leaving—either the convoy or the chopper shot him,” says Ali Kalaf Salman, an undercover Iraqi National Police officer who was working as a traffic cop at the scene. (One of the police documents lists 17 fatalities and many more wounded from the shooting. Other accounts have put the death toll at 11.)
Blackwater officials have acknowledged that their helicopters were at the scene of the shooting, but have denied that the guards in the choppers opened fire. In statements from Blackwater guards provided to the U.S. State Department and obtained by ABC News, the guards say they were fired upon by uniformed Iraqi police officers and others dressed in civilian clothes from multiple locations near the traffic circle. Still images provided to the network show a Blackwater vehicle pocked with five bullet marks. Anne Tyrrell, a company spokesperson, said shortly after the incident that the company “acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad … The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire.”
Yet Iraqi policemen and other Iraqi witnesses told NEWSWEEK that the Blackwater contractors opened fire unprovoked. “No one shot at Blackwater,” says Col. Faris Saadi Abdul, the lead Iraqi police investigator. “Blackwater shot without any cause.” Al-Awadi, the National Police commander, says that minutes after he heard the shooting begin, he rushed to the scene, which is just around the corner from the National Police headquarters. (He says he was accompanied by a unit of American military trainers embedded with his police.) “We were trying to figure out why they were shooting,” he told a NEWSWEEK reporter at the National Police headquarters in Baghdad over the weekend. “We tried to find a reason and we couldn't.” He says that his men searched the civilian cars at the scene, but didn't find any weapons. When Iraqi investigators later stopped a different Blackwater convoy near the scene of the shooting, the general says that the Blackwater guards refused to comment about the incident.
At the Iraqi National Police headquarters in Baghdad on Saturday, witnesses to the shooting milled around the halls, waiting to provide investigators with additional statements about the incident. Sirhan Diab, a traffic policeman who was working in Nasoor Square at the time of the shooting, said that he’d told his story to at least four separate investigators, including American military and civilian officials. (He says that as far as he knows, nobody from Blackwater has contacted him directly.)
The traffic cop, dressed in a crisp white shirt with blue epaulets, told NEWSWEEK that he had been alerted by radio to the arrival of the Blackwater convoy shortly before the vehicles approached Nasoor Square, just after noon on Sept. 16. About 30 minutes before, Diab says, he’d heard an explosion in the distance that sounded like a car bomb, but says that it didn’t worry him because “it was far away.” (In the statements obtained by ABC, the Blackwater guards said that a car bomb exploded near the site of a meeting of the official that they were protecting, prompting them to evacuate.)
Diab says that he stopped oncoming traffic to allow the Blackwater vehicles to pass. As the convoy pulled into the circle, according to Diab, the Blackwater guards began throwing bottles of water from their vehicles—a signal to stay back. Yet shortly after the convoy slowed to a stop in the circle, he says, the Blackwater guards “started shooting randomly.” One of the bullets hit the driver of a white Kia that had stopped near the roundabout. (Blackwater guards have said they felt threatened because they believed the car was continuing to move toward them.) Diab says that he and another policeman, Ali Kalaf Salman, rushed to the car and tried to pull open the doors. As they did, the Blackwater guards intensified their fire.
The Blackwater men said in their written statements that they believed a policeman was “pushing” one of the vehicles—which the guards suspected to be a car bomb—toward the circle, which prompted them to fire. When asked whether he was pushing the Kia, Salman, the undercover police office, laughs. “When you see someone get shot, you try to help them,” he says. Salman says he was carrying a 9mm Glock, but kept it holstered throughout the shooting. ABC reported that Blackwater guards also said they saw one person pull out what appeared to be a trigger device for a bomb. But the Iraqi policemen suggest that perhaps the edgy Blackwater guards mistook everyday items for lethal weapons. “I pulled my radio out to call an ambulance, and they shot at me,” says Diab.
When the traffic police arrived at the white Kia, a woman in the car “was crying and holding her son,” says Salman. As the shooting intensified, the two policemen said they were forced to flee on foot across the square. They say they looked on as the guards fired at the Kia from all directions. “Whenever they saw movement inside the vehicle, they started shooting,” says Salman. Eventually, the men said, the Blackwater guards launched larger projectiles—perhaps rifle-fired grenades—at the white Kia, setting it on fire. The video obtained by NEWSWEEK shows a large-caliber shell casing at the scene.
The convoy then continued around the traffic circle, according to a confidential Iraqi police diagram obtained by NEWSWEEK and provided to American investigators. According to the accompanying incident report, the Blackwater guards opened fire on an Iraqi Army checkpoint on a nearby road leading away from the square. The convoy also apparently sideswiped at least one Iraqi civilian vehicle in the circle. Samir Hobi, 40, says he got out of his car and complained to the Blackwater guards about the damage. He says one of the guards shouted back: “Shut up or I’ll shoot you.”
Iraqi officials have long chafed at what they perceive to be arrogance on the part of American contractors, and the fact that they are not technically subject to any local laws. In the immediate aftermath of the Nasoor Square incident they tried to ban Blackwater from Iraq (though they later relented and agreed to a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation of the incident). Iraqi officials have maintained from the beginning that the incident was unprovoked. The Iraqi National Police force is itself controversial. A recent report by retired Marine general James Jones concluded that the force was infiltrated by sectarian loyalists and should be disbanded.
At times, the official National Police version of events seems to be tinged with hyperbole. Al-Awadi, the National Police commander, told NEWSWEEK that there were “hundreds—hundreds—of American vehicles” on the scene shortly after the incident. That is almost certainly an exaggeration. Still, the Iraqi police accounts also roughly jibe with the stories of civilian eyewitnesses interviewed by NEWSWEEK shortly after the shooting. Iraqi officials have hinted that additional videotapes of the incident may exist that have yet to be made public. Ultimately, it may take further sifting of the hard evidence before investigators can determine what really happened at Nasoor Square.
With Larry Kaplow in Baghdad
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