5 Witnesses Insist Iraqis Didn't Fire On Guards

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept 28 -- Five eyewitnesses to a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad involving the private security firm Blackwater USA insisted that company guards fired without provocation, forcing civilians and Iraqi police to run for cover, and that the Iraqi officers did not return fire.

The eyewitnesses and a senior Iraqi police official close to an investigation of the incident contradicted initial accounts provided by the company and the State Department, which employs Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats. At least 11 Iraqis died in the shootings, which have focused attention on the actions of largely unregulated security companies operating in Iraq.

"The Iraqi security forces had the right to shoot at them when they saw the [Blackwater] convoy shooting at the people, but they did not shoot at the convoy," said Ahmed Ali Jassim, 19, a maintenance worker who saw the incident. "When they see Iraqis getting shot like that, their blood would be boiling. But no one crossed the limits."

The latest eyewitness accounts emerged as the State Department announced the creation of a high-level panel to assess whether appropriate rules are in place for the three private firms that protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials, whether the companies -- including the largest, Blackwater -- are following those rules, and whether the system should be altered or scrapped altogether.

Named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the panel will travel to Baghdad on Saturday to begin a comprehensive review of the State Department's multibillion-dollar private security operation in Iraq, according to Patrick E. Kennedy, the department's senior management official and head of the panel. The inquiry would remain separate from probes into the Sept. 16 incident, including a joint Iraq-U.S. committee composed of U.S. military and State Department personnel and Iraqi officials.

An ABC News report Friday quoted what it said were sworn statements from Blackwater employees, four of whom said they fired on a white sedan that failed to slow down despite hand and arm signals and water bottles they threw as it approached their convoy.

"I turned and engaged the car with approximately 20 to 30 rounds from my M4 rifle. After I no longer felt the threat to my life, I turned back to cover my sector," wrote one guard, according to ABC.

The guards also reported taking fire from gunmen dressed as civilians and Iraqi police officers from a tree line, a red bus and a dirt mound. One guard reported firing on a man who exited another white sedan with what the guard believed was a detonating device.

"Fearing for my life and the lives of my team members, I fired several well aimed rounds center mass at the threat," he wrote, according to ABC.

Another guard wrote that he fired in response to shots fired from Iraqis dressed as civilians. "I fired one shot from my SR-25 at the closest threat," wrote the guard, referring to a semiautomatic sniper rifle. "He went down and did not fire anymore."

The ABC report showed a photo of what Blackwater said was an armored vehicle that had been hit by at least five rounds during the incident.

The report also showed the fiery images of what Blackwater guards said was a car bomb attack before the incident. The car bomb detonated outside a financial compound where a U.S. official under Blackwater's protection was attending a meeting. The compound is about a mile from the site of the shootings, which did not occur until nearly 30 minutes after the bombing.

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