By Sudarsan Raghavan, Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 5, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 4 -- U.S. military reports from the scene of the Sept. 16 shooting incident involving the security firm Blackwater USA indicate that its guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force against Iraqi civilians, according to a senior U.S. military official.
The reports came to light as an Interior Ministry official and five eyewitnesses described a second deadly shooting minutes after the incident in Nisoor Square. The same Blackwater security guards, after driving about 150 yards away from the square, fired into a crush of cars, killing one person and injuring two, the Iraqi official said.
The U.S. military reports appear to corroborate the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault in the shooting incident in Nisoor Square, in which hospital records say at least 14 people were killed and 18 were wounded.
"It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," said the U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the incident remains the subject of several investigations. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP or any of the local security forces fired back at them," he added, using a military abbreviation for the Iraqi police. The Blackwater guards appeared to have fired grenade launchers in addition to machine guns, the official said.
The company has said its guards acted appropriately after being attacked. Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince, in previously unpublicized remarks prepared for delivery at a congressional hearing Tuesday, said the Blackwater guards "came under small-arms fire" and "returned fire at threatening targets."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack hinted Thursday that Blackwater guards could face legal proceedings. Announcing a decision to have FBI agents lead a State Department inquiry into the shootings, he said it was "a hedge against the possibility that an investigation leads to the point where there may need to be a referral" to U.S. prosecutors.
In response to the shootings, the Pentagon is also conducting a broad review of its relationship with the private security contractors it employs. The military has issued about 7,000 weapons permits to private contractors, the senior U.S. military official said, but has stopped issuing new permits until it can review who has the weapons and how they have been used.
Many U.S. military officials are critical of Blackwater because its guards have a reputation for reckless behavior that officials say reflects poorly on American troops in Iraq. Iraqi citizens often do not distinguish between U.S. soldiers in Humvees and Blackwater guards in armored vehicles.
"They tend to overreact to a lot of things. They maneuver around town very aggressively, they've got weapons pointed at people, they cut people off, of course their speeds -- I mean a whole bunch of things they do fairly consistently. But when it comes to shooting and firing, they tend to shoot quicker than others," the U.S. military official said.
U.S. soldiers have reviewed statements from eyewitnesses and video footage recorded at Nisoor Square, the official said. Members of a U.S. unit working with Iraqi police were present in the area at the time of the shootings. U.S. soldiers also helped ferry victims to hospitals.
Blackwater, whose primary task in Iraq is to protect U.S. diplomats, has been unwilling to share information about the incident with the U.S. military, the official said, adding that military officials went to Blackwater's compound in the Green Zone but were denied access to company managers.
Anne Tyrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said the company was "cooperating with all investigations" and deferred further comment until they are complete.
The prepared testimony of Blackwater Chairman Prince is the company's fullest accounting to date of the events at Nisoor Square. Portions of the remarks dealing with the incident were left out of his testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after the Justice Department, on the morning of the hearing, warned that the incident was under investigation and should not be discussed in public session.
The testimony said that after a Blackwater team delivered a U.S. government official to a Baghdad destination, a "very large" car bomb exploded "in close proximity to their location." After the team "secured its principal and requested support for its evacuation," a second Blackwater team proceeded to an intersection "approximately one mile away from the explosion site to secure a route of egress" for the first team.
When the second team arrived at Nisoor Square, it said, "they came under small-arms fire and notified the first team to proceed along a different route. The vehicle team still in the intersection continued to receive fire, and some team members returned fire at threatening targets. Among the threats identified were men with AK-47s firing on the convoy, as well as approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers."
The team attempted to leave, but "one of their vehicles was disabled by enemy fire" and eventually had to be towed. "Some of those firing on this Blackwater team appeared to be wearing Iraqi National Police uniforms, or portions of such uniforms. As the withdrawal occurred, the Blackwater vehicles remained under fire from such personnel."
According to Prince's prepared testimony, which cautioned that his "current understanding" remained incomplete, only five members of the 20-member team ever discharged their weapons "in response to the threat." Blackwater helicopters "did assist in directing the teams to safety, but contrary to some reports, no one in the helicopters discharged any weapons."
In the testimony he did deliver, Prince said that "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone." He said that there was a "rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater's guilt for the death of varying numbers of civilians."
McCormack, the State Department spokesman, did not say under which U.S. laws Blackwater employees could face prosecution. Contractors are immune from Iraqi law under an order issued by the U.S. occupation government in 2004. Although Defense Department contractors are liable under U.S. military codes, the extent to which those working for State are within the jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts remains "murky," the head of the department's diplomatic security operations said in congressional testimony Tuesday.
Blackwater and other security firms providing personal security under contract to the State Department have been implicated in a number of previous Iraqi civilian deaths, injuries and property damage incidents in recent years, but no one has ever been prosecuted in the incidents.
Andrew J. Moonen, 27, a former Blackwater employee from Kalispell, Mont., was identified Thursday as the primary suspect in the killing of an Iraqi vice president's bodyguard last Christmas Eve inside the Green Zone. Lawyer Stewart P. Riley confirmed that he was representing the U.S. Army veteran but declined to say whether Moonen had been interviewed by investigators. The New York Times revealed Moonen's identity.
"I want to underscore that he has cooperated from the very beginning and has never stopped cooperating," Riley said.
Eyewitnesses to the events of Sept. 16 said the Blackwater convoy, after leaving Nisoor Square, headed north and drove into a knot of cars trying to go down a side road to avoid the square.
"They came at a high speed," said Uday Khalid, 25, a policeman. "They just wanted to escape. They were shooting their way out. They were yelling and shouting."
One Iraqi driver slammed on his brakes and tried to turn around, as did other cars. But a Blackwater guard "immediately opened fire on them," said Amar Kurdi, 30, a policeman who tried to manage the traffic to allow the convoy to pass through.
Kurdi said that he saw only the guards from the rearmost Blackwater vehicle shooting. But the Iraqi Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is close to the Iraqi government's investigation of the incident, said guards fired from all four vehicles.
The Blackwater guards fired warning shots whenever one of the police officers tried to help the injured, the officers said. "We tried to help the people who were shot, but they wouldn't let us," said Mahdi Daoud, 29, another policeman guarding a civil defense compound.
Moments later, the road cleared and the convoy sped away.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writers Steve Fainaru in El Cerrito, Calif., and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington, and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.