By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 4, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 3 -- Minutes after noon on Sept. 16, Ali Khalil drove his black motorcycle toward Nisoor Square. Three days earlier, the 54-year-old blacksmith and father of six children had felt safe enough in the capital to reopen his shop.
Osama Fadhil Abbas, a 40-year-old car dealer, was approaching the square in his white truck, on his way to wire $1,000 to Dubai.
Mehasin Muhsin Kadhum, a 46-year-old doctor, and her eldest son, Ahmed Haitham, 20, were nearing the square in their white sedan, after a morning of errands that included picking up college application forms for Kadhum's daughter.
From the southeast, along a road that leads from the Green Zone, a convoy of four armored Blackwater USA vehicles also made its way to the square.
Fifteen minutes later, the convoy sped away through a thick cloud generated by smoke bombs, leaving behind a tableau of bullet-pocked cars and broken lives. The events of that afternoon are still contested, but what is clear is that many of those killed and wounded were civilians struggling with the vicissitudes of their turbulent nation.
The victims were as young as 11 and as old as 55, according to hospital records. They were middle class and poor. They included college students, day laborers and professionals vital to rebuilding Iraq. There was a mother and her daughter. The daughter lived. There was a taxi driver, only 25, who was the sole provider for his parents and seven siblings. He died.
Blackwater guards say they were ambushed and shot at by Iraqi policemen and civilians. Ten eyewitnesses and Iraqi police officials insisted in interviews that the guards opened fire in the square, unprovoked, and continued shooting even as civilians fled for their lives. Hospital records show 14 dead and 18 injured, a toll higher than most previous official tallies.
The carnage has sparked outrage and demands to reform the private contractor industry. Almost three weeks later, the collective memory of Iraqis at the scene is raw.
"It was catastrophic. So many innocent people were killed," recalled Zina Fadhil, 21, a pharmacist. That day, she huddled in fear inside her store about 100 yards from the square as Blackwater helicopters hovered above. Like other eyewitnesses, she said she saw Blackwater guards firing down from the helicopters, an allegation the security firm denies.
"I am a peaceful person, but I wished I could have shot those people in the helicopters," Fadhil continued, her soft voice rising.
Not one of the victims or family members interviewed had been aware that Blackwater was immune to prosecution in Iraq under an order by U.S. administrators after the 2003 invasion.
"Why is the blood of Iraqis so free for everyone to spill?" asked Sahib Nasr, the father of one of the victims.Blackwater's Convoy Enters the Square
Five months ago, a truck bomb detonated in the tunnel that runs beneath Nisoor Square. The repair work had become a metaphor for an Iraq capable of resurrecting itself. By Sept. 16, workers had painted pink and yellow flowers on the streets and draped Iraqi flags over railings. A white banner read: "Creators of Life are Always Victorious."
On that day, the Blackwater convoy was responding to a bombing near a State Department convoy about a mile away. As the Blackwater armored vehicles entered the square, a heavily guarded area near Baghdad's affluent Mansour neighborhood, Iraqi police officers moved to stop traffic.
Kadhum, the doctor, and her son Haitham, who were in the flow of cars the officers were trying to stop, didn't react quickly enough. A Blackwater guard fired, striking Haitham as he sat in the driver's seat, three witnesses said.
"The bullet went through the windshield and split his head open," recalled traffic police officer Sarhan Thiab. "His mother was holding him, screaming for help."
The car, which had an automatic transmission, kept rolling. Another officer, Ali Khalaf, tried to stop the vehicle as another spray of bullets killed Kadhum.
Thiab fled first, then Khalaf, followed by bullets that struck a traffic light pole, a billboard and their police guard post. Then the Blackwater guards escalated their firepower, engulfing the sedan in flames.
In sworn statements to State Department investigators reported by ABC News, four Blackwater guards said they fired upon the sedan because it was traveling at high speed and would not stop. Khalaf and other eyewitnesses said it was moving slowly and posed no threat.
Within moments, bullets flew in every direction, said witnesses and police officials. Scores sought cover in a nearby embankment. Others abandoned their vehicles. "They were shooting from four cars," said Ahmed Ali Jassim, 19, a maintenance worker, referring to the Blackwater guards. "People were fleeing, but where could they go?"Trapped in Traffic and Under Fire
Abbas, the car dealer, was in his stopped Volkswagen box truck, crouched next to his friend Majid Salman. Their vehicle was two cars behind and one lane over from the white sedan. The men had witnessed Kadhum and her son get shot, then burn as their car caught fire.
The night before, Abbas, a barrel-chested father of four, read the Koran as is traditional during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. That morning, he cracked jokes with his two young sons, Mohammed and Ahmed, they later recalled, before he left to send money to Dubai.
Now, Abbas and Salman were trapped in traffic as Western gunmen fired automatic weapons toward them roughly 25 yards in front of their truck. Within seconds, bullets punctured the black car in front of their truck. Gripped by fear, Salman, 48, pushed open the passenger-side door and stumbled out. He was immediately shot in the leg and abdomen, and fell to the pavement.
"Osama told me to get back in the car," Salman recalled. "I tried to climb back in, but I couldn't, so I crawled away on the ground."
Salman looked back and saw Abbas pushing open his door. As he stepped out, he was shot multiple times. Moments later, weakened by his wounds, Salman passed out.People 'Trying to Save Themselves'
About half a mile away, traffic police officer Hussam Abdul Rahman, 25, heard his co-worker Thiab's frantic voice over the radio asking for backup and ambulances. So he drove his motorcycle toward Nisoor Square from the west. As he neared dozens of stalled cars, he swerved to avoid gunfire and was thrown off the motorcycle, scraping his left elbow. He hid behind a concrete barrier, watching the chaos unfold.
"Whoever stepped out of his car was shot at immediately," Rahman said.
He saw the Blackwater guards firing at a red bus. In their statements, one guard said they were coming under fire from the bus. Rahman disputed this account, saying the passengers were breaking windows to jump out.
"People were trying to save themselves," he said.
After the convoy sped away, Rahman recognized an olive-green car with the driver's door open. The seat was empty. The car belonged to his cousin Mahdi Sahib, a taxi driver.
The short, mustachioed soccer fan's 10-member family lived off Sahib's $480 monthly income. Too poor to fix a broken windshield wiper, he had wrapped a ball of pink cloth at the tip of the rod.
"All his hopes in life were to get married," said his brother Ali Sahib, 23. "But he could never afford it."
Rahman called his cousin's cellphone. A stranger answered and informed him that Sahib had been injured. Rahman found him at a hospital in the Kadimiyah neighborhood, shot through his upper left side and bleeding internally.
The motorcycle of Ali Khalil, the blacksmith, was found at the edge of the square. He had been shot several times in the chest and taken, still alive, to Yarmouk Hospital, said Khalaf, the traffic officer.
Before he left that morning, recalled his wife, Fawzia Sharif, their grandson had woken up. Khalil had picked him up and kissed him. "Grandson, I am so happy I have seen you before I leave," he said.Hospital Scenes of Sadness and Loss
After the shooting stopped, Zina Fadhil cautiously walked out of her pharmacy. Cars with blown-out tires were moving slowly. For a few minutes, an eerie silence filled the air. Then she saw police pickup trucks fly by, carrying the wounded and dead, stacked on top of one another.
"I could see only their legs," she recalled.
At Yarmouk Hospital, already short on staff, doctors and nurses were overwhelmed by the wounded. At least two children of elementary-school age had bullet wounds, said two emergency room doctors who were present that day. They, like other hospital staff, asked that their names not be used because kidnappers often target doctors.
In one room, hospital workers registered the possessions of the dead and injured -- inexpensive watches, cheap slippers, thin wallets, small amounts of money, even a bag of vegetables. "These were simple people," said a young doctor overseeing the task. Victims' cellphones rang constantly as people tried to reach them.
Doctors tried to revive Khalil, but he died within minutes. A relative called his wife, Sharif, and told her to come to the hospital. She brought along bedsheets, pillows and a water jug to comfort him. When she arrived, she was sent to the morgue.
A neighbor who witnessed the shootings called Firoz Fadhil Abbas, Osama's brother. He was blunt. "Look, your brother is dead. Please come right away." Firoz claimed Osama's body, shot in the head and upper back.
In a nearby ward, his friend Salman regained consciousness. "I thought of Osama," he recalled. "I felt right then that he wasn't alive."
A few miles away, at Kadimiyah Hospital, parents and siblings stood by the bedside of Sahib, the taxi driver. The doctors could not stop his internal bleeding. And over three hours, Sahib slowly lost consciousness. Relatives took turns holding his hands.
"Don't leave me alone," Sahib said, seconds before he died.A Charred Sedan, Numbers in the Sand
Haitham Ahmed, the husband of Kadhum and the father of Ahmed Haitham, was growing concerned. He had repeatedly called their cellphones without getting through. At 5 p.m., he called his brother Raad Ahmed, a dialysis specialist at Yarmouk Hospital.
Raad Ahmed had left the hospital when the shootings erupted. Now he went back. Among the dead, he spotted two bodies -- a woman and a man -- burned beyond recognition.
"I had my doubts," Ahmed recalled. "My heart didn't want to believe it."
So he and his wife drove up the road to Nisoor Square, where they spotted a charred white sedan. The license plate had been removed. His wife saw numbers printed in the sand next to the car. Ahmed knelt to the ground, then called his brother.
Ahmed began to read him the numbers: "2 . . . 9 . . . 9," he said, before choking up.
It was the family's car.
At the morgue, Haitham Ahmed recognized his son's shoe and his wife's dental bridge.'In the Hands of God'
Dressed in a black head-to-toe abaya, Sharif visited the police headquarters at Nisoor Square last week, carrying a folder filled with documents to prove her identity. She had come to pick up Khalil's motorcycle.
Two years ago, insurgents displaced them from their home in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood. They were living with Khalil's brother. Now, she has neither a pension nor savings, she said. "An entire family has been destroyed," she said, her eyes welling with pain.
She plans to file a complaint at a local police station in Yarmouk -- the first step to compensation, national police officials told her. But she has little faith in such promises. "Everything is in the hands of God," she said, staring out at the square.
Sahib Nasr, father of taxi driver Mahdi Sahib, has already filed complaints with the Yarmouk police and a local court. The 60-year-old patriarch said he wants compensation for his loss, nothing less. "I cannot work at this age," he said.
"I blame the government," added Mahdi's brother Ali, his voice suddenly brimming with anger. "If it wasn't for the government allowing Blackwater to go around free, they will not kill innocent people like that."
"We want Blackwater to be tried," he said.Questions of Accountability
On Monday, inside his spacious cream-colored house in Baghdad's Khadisiya neighborhood, Firoz Fadhil Abbas questioned whether anyone would be held accountable for the shootings.
He has met several times with U.S. military investigators, and every time they apologized for his brother's death, he said. But such words have done little to ease the clan's loss.
"It looks like everything is back to normal. The company is back in operation," Abbas said. "And we've lost the head of our family. There's no justice here."
Mohammed Osama Fadhil, Osama's 14-year-old son, quietly listened to the conversation. Seated near him was his brother, Ahmed, a solemn 7-year-old. Finally, Mohammed spoke, focusing on Blackwater.
"They killed many others before," he said. "Have they done anything to help those people, so that we can expect something?"
Around the corner, his father's Volkswagen truck was parked in the driveway of a neighbor's house. A huge hole was gouged in the driver's door, surrounded by smaller bullet holes. On the top of the cab was another gaping hole, seemingly from powerful bullets fired from above. The windshield was shattered into hundreds of honeycomb patterns.
'They Were Innocent'
Ten minutes away, Kadhum's charred white sedan sat at a bus stop on the fringes of Nisoor Square. Her husband, Haitham Ahmed, said he wants it left there until justice is served.
In the days following the deaths of his wife and son, he petitioned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to hold Blackwater accountable. The mild-mannered pathologist still has not been contacted by Iraqi or U.S. officials.
"They have killed my beloveds. They were innocent," he lamented on Wednesday. "We don't have any contacts with any party, any side. We are all doctors."
"What I want is the law to prevail," he added. "I hope that this act will not go without punishment."
There were opportunities, he said, for his family to flee Iraq. But he and his wife believed in the promise of a new Iraq. "I feel pain when I see doctors leaving Iraq," he said.
His son was going to follow in his footsteps. In his third year of medical school, the soccer-loving, multilingual Ahmed planned to become a surgeon.
Now, he said, his two other children, Mariam, 18, and Haidar, 16, are concerned about his safety. "Enough of the pain, enough of death in Iraq."
Mariam was born in the last phases of the Iran-Iraq conflict. Her eyes filling with tears, she said she wanted to leave: "I was born in one war, I don't want to die in another."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.