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.
"It was absolutely tragic," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and the Army's top commander for Baghdad. "In the aftermath of these, everybody looks and says, 'It's the Americans.' And that's us. It's horrible timing. It's yet another challenge, another setback," he said.
The Washington Post on Thursday examined a storyboard of the soldiers' assessment that has been forwarded to senior U.S. military commanders, photos taken by aerial drones shortly after the shooting and sworn statements by two U.S. soldiers at the scene that day. The Post also reviewed photos taken by U.S. soldiers of the shootings' aftermath. These, along with interviews with four of Tarsa's soldiers who inspected the scene, revealed previously undisclosed details:
¿ At least two cars, a black four-door taxi and a blue Volkswagen sedan, had their back windshields shot out, but their front windshields were intact, indicating they were shot while driving away from the square, according to the photos and soldiers. The Volkswagen, which crashed into a bus stand, had blood splattered on the inside of its front windshield and windows. One person was killed, soldiers said.
¿ U.S. soldiers did not find any bullets that came from AK-47 assault rifles or BKC machine guns used by Iraqi policemen and soldiers. They found evidence of ammunition used in American-made weapons, including M4 rifle 5.56mm brass casings, M240B machine gun 7.62mm casings, M203 40mm grenade launcher casings, and stun-grenade dunnage, or packing.
¿ A white sedan, carrying a doctor and her son, had not entered the Nisoor Square traffic circle, where the Blackwater vehicles had stopped, when it was fired upon, according to the aerial photos. News reports have said the guards shot at the car because they believed it approached them in a threatening manner.
"I was surprised at the caliber of weapon being used," said Capt. Don Cherry, 32. "My guys have 203s with nonlethal rounds we use as warning shots. It's a rubber ball that bounces off the windshield."
"This is a hand grenade you are flying out there," he added.
From Forward Operating Base Prosperity, inside the Green Zone, Capt. Peter Decareau recalled seeing thick black smoke rising Sept. 16 and thinking it was from a car bomb. He and other soldiers got into their Humvees and drove toward Nisoor Square.
They arrived about 12:30 p.m. and saw that Iraqi police had blocked in a second Blackwater convoy. By then, the Blackwater guards who had opened fire had left. The second Blackwater convoy apparently had been sent to support the first convoy, according to an initial State Department report.
But Iraqi police officials refused to let the Blackwater convoy leave until another U.S. military unit escorted it back to the Green Zone.
Decareau headed on to the square. It was flooded with more than 50 Iraqi security force personnel, including top generals. The police were evacuating victims. By then, the smoke, which had risen from the burning white sedan, had vanished. Two charred bodies were still in the car.
"People were upset," recalled Sgt. Derrek Martin.
By 1:30 p.m., both Cherry and Tarsa had arrived. Some Iraqi police officials told them that the Blackwater guards fired at the white car as it neared the square. The officials guessed that the driver may have accidentally pressed on the accelerator instead of the brakes, Tarsa said. Witnesses have said the car was driving slowly and posed no threat.
"With a vehicle speeding up to a convoy, that's grounds for escalation of force," said Sgt. Jesse Fegurgur, 30.
Cherry said he could consider the assault on the white sedan "a mistake," but he didn't understand why the guards fired down the road at cars whose drivers had turned around and were moving away.
"I was upset this happened," Cherry said. "This was uncalled for."
Decareau saw cars pointed away from the square with their rear windshields shot out, many bullet holes and smears of blood, he said.
An Iraqi colonel walked up to Tarsa and described the Blackwater shooters as men in "tan uniforms, black helmets, and that flag," pointing at the U.S. flag on Tarsa's sleeve. The colonel added that he knew the U.S. military wasn't involved. Still, Tarsa dispatched his soldiers across their sector over the next few days.
"I wanted our guys to be on the ground, to look people in the eye, to listen to their anguish, listen to their outrage, to let them know we're going to help those people personally affected," Tarsa said.
"I was concerned about acts of vengeance and misinformation somehow indicating we were part of this event," he said. Tarsa spoke with community and tribal leaders.
"It was a very tense 24 hours," said Maj. David Shoupe, the battalion spokesman. "We didn't know which way it was going to go."
White reported from Washington.