By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Iraq's Interior Ministry has been trying to repeal Order 17 since January and has referred its findings from an internal probe of the Sept. 16 incident for possible criminal prosecution. Iraqi investigators from the Defense Ministry have concluded that Blackwater should be expelled from Iraq and that $8 million should be paid as compensation for each victim. U.S. officials have said that any action against Blackwater must wait until the findings of an ongoing FBI probe are released.
Some victims have sued Blackwater and Prince in a U.S. federal court, seeking unspecified damages to compensate for alleged war crimes, illegal killings, wrongful death and emotional distress.
Haitham Ahmed, whose wife, Mehasin Muhsin Kadhum, and son, Ahmed Haitham, were killed in Nisoor Square, said justice has been elusive. He has written to Maliki seeking help, but as of Wednesday he had not been contacted by Iraqi officials, he said.
On Saturday, Ahmed met with a State Department official who asked him what he thought was fair compensation for his wife and son.
"They are priceless," Ahmed replied.
The official pressed him on an amount.
"Like Lockerbie," Ahmed replied, referring to the Pan American airline bombing over Scotland in which victims' families each reportedly received $8 million in compensation from the Libyan government.
"And you would have to deliver the criminals to an Iraqi court just like Libya delivered the criminals to the British," Ahmed told the U.S. official.
On Wednesday, Ahmed refused to go to the Green Zone to receive the payment from a team led by Patricia Butenis, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy. Later, Ahmed learned from Mohammad Hafud Abdul Razaq that $12,500 had been offered for the death of Abdul Razaq's 10-year-old son, Ali, who was seated in the back seat of a car near Nisoor Square when a bullet struck his head.
"A humiliating figure," said Ahmed, who added that he was considering joining the U.S. lawsuit.
Abdul Razaq, a 37-year-old car dealer, refused to accept the money. Butenis, he said, expressed her condolences, but he wanted Blackwater to acknowledge what it did.
"The manager of Blackwater didn't apologize, and he didn't admit the crime. He didn't apologize for his crime," Abdul Razaq said. Then he said that he told Butenis that the amount was far too little to compensate for his son's death.
"I told the ambassador, 'You are fighting terrorist groups who are offering $100,000 for people who blow themselves up.' "
Others were desperate. Baraa Sadoun, 29, a taxi driver, was shot in the abdomen. He took $7,500 in crisp $100 bills. He had already had two surgeries in a private hospital.
"I paid double this amount for the treatment and surgery," Sadoun said. "For more than a month now, I'm jobless and disabled. And my car is completely damaged. This incident totally ruined my life."
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.