Blackwater Guards Fired at Fleeing Cars, Soldiers Say

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By Sudarsan Raghavan and Josh White
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 12, 2007

BAGHDAD, Oct. 11 -- Blackwater USA guards shot at Iraqi civilians as they tried to drive away from a Baghdad square on Sept. 16, according to a report compiled by the first U.S. soldiers to arrive at the scene, where they found no evidence that Iraqis had fired weapons.

"It appeared to me they were fleeing the scene when they were engaged. It had every indication of an excessive shooting," said Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa, whose soldiers reached Nisoor Square 20 to 25 minutes after the gunfire subsided.

His soldiers' report -- based upon their observations at the scene, eyewitness interviews and discussions with Iraqi police -- concluded that there was "no enemy activity involved" and described the shootings as a "criminal event." Their conclusions mirrored those reached by the Iraqi government, which has said the Blackwater guards killed 17 people.

The soldiers' accounts contradict Blackwater's assertion that its guards were defending themselves after being fired upon by Iraqi police and gunmen.

Tarsa said they found no evidence to indicate that the Blackwater guards were provoked or entered into a confrontation. "I did not see anything that indicated they were fired upon," said Tarsa, 42, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. He also said it appeared that several drivers had made U-turns and were moving away from Nisoor Square when their vehicles were hit by gunfire from Blackwater guards.

In Washington on Thursday, an injured Iraqi man and the families of three Iraqi civilians who were killed in the Sept. 16 shootings sued the company in federal court, calling the incident a "massacre" and "senseless slaughter" that was the result of corporate policies in the war zone.

Attorneys for Talib Mutlaq Deewan, who was injured in the shootings, and the families of Himoud Saed Atban, Usama Fadhil Abbass and Oday Ismail Ibraheem, who were killed, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking for unspecified damages to compensate for alleged war crimes, illegal killings, wrongful death, emotional distress and negligence. The lawsuit names Blackwater USA, the Prince Group and Blackwater founder and chief executive Erik Prince as defendants.

"Blackwater created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company's financial interests at the expense of innocent human life," the 17-page complaint says.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company was aware of the lawsuit and would defend itself vigorously. She declined to comment further on the Nisoor Square incident until an ongoing FBI investigation is completed.

Susan L. Burke, one of the lawyers who filed the suit, said the families approached legal representatives in Baghdad in the hope of obtaining accountability for the shootings.

The families "are hopeful we can make a difference," Burke said, adding that she hopes the case will shed light on the "cowboy culture" she believes contractors have fostered in Iraq. "There is a sense of wanting to do something to make it right."

In the hours and days after the Nisoor Square shootings, the U.S. military sought to distance itself from Blackwater. Dozens of soldiers went door-to-door to seek out victims, offer condolence payments and stress that the military was not involved in the shootings, Tarsa and his soldiers said. Their actions underscore the long-standing tensions between the U.S. military and private security companies -- and the military's concerns that such shootings, and the lack of accountability for the private security industry, could undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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