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.
"All the vehicles were shooting. They were shooting in every direction," said a senior Iraqi police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations. "They used a rocket launcher or grenade launcher to hit the car. They were supported by two helicopters who were shooting from the air."
After about 15 minutes, the guards sped away under cover of the smoke, eyewitnesses said.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi government investigation is expected to examine the incident, along with at least a half-dozen other shooting incidents involving Blackwater.
According to the report, the sequence of events leading up to the shooting began at 11:53 a.m., when a car bomb exploded 25 yards outside of the Izdihar financial compound, just over a mile northwest of the Green Zone. One principal was inside, accompanied by a Blackwater personal security detail identified as Team 4. A Blackwater team normally consists of three or four armored vehicles manned by multiple security contractors armed with assault rifles and pistols.
A Blackwater tactical support team, identified as TST 22, drove to the location to help Team 4 extract the principal. The two teams escorted the official back to the Green Zone "without incident," according to the report. "It is unknown who was the target of the" car bomb.
According to the report, a third Blackwater team, identified as TST 23, was dispatched from the Green Zone to assist after the car bomb detonated. Upon arriving at Nisoor Square, in Baghdad's affluent Mansour neighborhood, the report said, TST 23 was "engaged with small arms fire" from "multiple nearby locations."
The report said TST 23 returned fire and tried to drive out of the ambush site. However, one of the company's tactical armored vehicles, a BearCat, became disabled during the shooting. In the middle of the firefight, according to the report, the other tactical support team, TST 22, was ordered back out of the Green Zone to assist TST 23 in Nisoor Square, identified in the document as Gray 87.
Before TST 22 could arrive, according to the report, TST 23 had towed the BearCat and returned to the Green Zone. TST 22 found itself alone in the congested traffic circle and confronted by an Iraqi quick-reaction force. "Over the next several minutes, additional Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police units arrived and began to encircle TST 22 with vehicles," according to the report. "The Iraqis had large caliber machine guns pointed at TST 22."
The Blackwater team contacted the tactical operations center for the U.S. Embassy's regional security office, which oversees private security movements, according to the report. The report said the embassy's regional security office deployed the embassy's air assets, believed to be Blackwater's armed "Little Bird" helicopters, for "route reconnaissance and additional coverage."
"The U.S. Army QRF" -- quick-reaction force -- "arrived on scene at 12:39 hours and mediated the situation," the report said. "They escorted TST 22 out of the area and successfully back to the [Green Zone] without further incident."
Some U.S. officials have questioned why the Blackwater team decided to evacuate the principal and return to the Green Zone, rather than remaining inside the compound. "It doesn't make sense," said one U.S. official. "Why would they go back out there when they were already safe?"
The report said Blackwater's armored vehicles incurred superficial damage from small-arms fire. Although the report made no mention of civilian casualties, the document added, "The nature of the Bearcat malfunction is under investigation."
Fainaru reported from El Cerrito, Calif., and Raghavan from Baghdad. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.