U.S. Offers Cash to Victims in Blackwater Incident
Thursday, October 25, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 24 -- The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday began offering tens of thousands of dollars in payments to victims and families of victims of the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad involving security guards from the firm Blackwater Worldwide, according to relatives and U.S. officials.
Family members of several victims turned down the compensation, out of concern that accepting the funds would limit their future claims against the North Carolina-based security contractor and its chief executive, Erik Prince. Others said that the money being offered -- in some cases $12,500 for a death -- was paltry and that they wanted to sue Blackwater in an American court.
"This is an insult," said Firoz Fadhil Abbas, whose brother Osama was killed in a barrage of bullets. "The funeral and the wake cost more than what they offered. My brother who got killed was responsible for four families."
The offers of compensation, while a standard practice in the U.S. military, are unusual for the U.S. Embassy, reflecting the diplomatic and political sensitivities raised by the shootings, which sparked outrage in Iraq and the United States.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo described the offers as "condolence payments" to support the relatives of the victims and said the money was not intended to be a final settlement of their claims. Relatives could still bring suits against Blackwater, she said.
"It's not an admission of culpability," Nantongo said. "And this is in no way a waiver of future claims."
The offers came two days before the 40-day anniversary of the shootings, a traditional day of mourning in many Islamic societies. They also came a day after a panel, appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, found shortcomings in the embassy's compensation system for incidents involving private security contractors.
"The Embassy process for provision of payments, as is expected by Iraqi legal practice and custom, to the families of innocent civilians killed or seriously injured . . . or for damage to property, is not as responsive or timely as that of the U.S. military," the report found.
Blackwater guards contend that they were ambushed by Iraqi civilians and policemen. But eyewitnesses, police investigators and U.S. soldiers who later arrived at the scene say the guards opened fire on Iraqi civilians without provocation.
The Iraqi government has concluded that Blackwater is solely to blame for the shootings, which left 17 people dead in Nisoor Square near the affluent western Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour.
Blackwater's legal status is unclear. Foreign security firms are immune from Iraqi questioning and legislation under Order 17, a law created by Iraq's post-invasion U.S. authority. But the Iraqi government is mounting a determined effort to overturn the decree and clear the way for private security companies to be tried in Iraqi courts and for Iraqi citizens to file suit against them.
On Wednesday, Iraq's cabinet decided to create a committee to explore ways to repeal Order 17, according to Iraqi television reports citing anonymous Iraqi officials. An official in the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he could neither confirm nor deny the action.