Blackwater Faced Bedlam, Embassy Finds

Hussam Hassan inspects his father's car several days after it was heavily damaged in the disputed shooting at Nisoor Square in Baghdad.
Hussam Hassan inspects his father's car several days after it was heavily damaged in the disputed shooting at Nisoor Square in Baghdad. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Steve Fainaru and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 28, 2007

The initial U.S. Embassy report on a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad involving Blackwater USA, a private security firm, depicts an afternoon of mayhem that included a car bomb, a shootout in a crowded traffic circle and an armed standoff between Blackwater guards and Iraqi security forces before the U.S. military intervened.

The two-page report, described by a State Department official as a "first blush" account from the scene, raises new questions about what transpired in the intersection. According to the report, the events that led to the shooting involved three Blackwater units. One of them was ambushed near the traffic circle and returned fire before fleeing the scene, the report said. Another unit that went to the intersection was then surrounded by Iraqis and had to be extricated by the U.S. military, it added.

Separately, a U.S. official familiar with the investigation said that participants in the shooting have reported that at least one of the Blackwater guards drew a weapon on his colleagues and screamed for them to "stop shooting." This account suggested that there was some effort to curb the shooting, with at least one Blackwater guard believing it had spiraled out of control. "Stop shooting -- those are the words that we're hearing were used," the official said.

The report, by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, details the events as described by Blackwater guards -- details that are now at the center of an intense debate in Iraq and in Congress over the larger role of private security firms in Iraq. Tens of thousands of armed, private guards operate in Iraq, protecting everything from U.S. and Iraqi officials to supply convoys. The shooting incident is being scrutinized in at least three separate investigations.

Witnesses and the Iraqi government have insisted that the shooting by the private guards was unprovoked. Blackwater has claimed that its guards returned fire only after they were shot at. The document makes no reference to civilian casualties. Eleven Iraqi civilians were killed and 12 wounded in the incident. The report said Blackwater sustained no casualties.

According to the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, the incident occurred shortly after noon as three Blackwater teams moved to escort one "principal" back to Baghdad's Green Zone. The official had been visiting a "financial compound" when a car bomb detonated about 25 yards outside the entrance, the report said.

Two of the Blackwater teams returned to the Green Zone with the official, who was apparently unharmed. But the third team came under fire from "8-10 persons" who "fired from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi police uniforms," the report said.

A State Department official cautioned that the "spot report" is only an initial account. "They're not intended to be authoritative reports of what occurred in any given incident." The report was drafted by the watch officer for the embassy's regional security office and approved by the deputy regional security officer in Baghdad.

The official, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigations into the shooting, said the report, which was dated the same day as the attack, reflected only what embassy officers were told by the Blackwater guards immediately after the incident. He said details could change as the investigations move forward.

According to the document, Blackwater's guards were completing written statements and the embassy's regional security officer had launched an investigation. Previous press accounts have alluded to the spot report's existence, but the full report had not been made public.

The report, which is designated sensitive but unclassified, differs significantly from the account of the Iraqi Interior Ministry and several witnesses interviewed at the scene. According to those accounts, the Blackwater guards moved into the traffic circle in a convoy of armored vehicles, halting traffic and then firing on a white sedan that had failed to slow down as it entered the area. The car burst into flames, killing the occupants, according to these accounts. The Blackwater team then unleashed a barrage of fire into the surrounding area as people tried to flee in the pandemonium.

Sarhan Thiab, a traffic policeman who was in the circle at the time, said Iraqi police did not fire on Blackwater. "Not a single bullet. They were the only ones shooting," said Thiab, who said he and other traffic officers fled to nearby bushes once the shooting began.

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