By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 8, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Last Feb. 7, a sniper employed by Blackwater USA, the private security company, opened fire from the roof of the Iraqi Justice Ministry. The bullet tore through the head of a 23-year-old guard for the state-funded Iraqi Media Network, who was standing on a balcony across an open traffic circle. Another guard rushed to his colleague's side and was fatally shot in the neck. A third guard was found dead more than an hour later on the same balcony.
Eight people who responded to the shootings -- including media network and Justice Ministry guards and an Iraqi army commander -- and five network officials in the compound said none of the slain guards had fired on the Justice Ministry, where a U.S. diplomat was in a meeting. An Iraqi police report described the shootings as "an act of terrorism" and said Blackwater "caused the incident." The media network concluded that the guards were killed "without any provocation."
The U.S. government reached a different conclusion. Based on information from the Blackwater guards, who said they were fired upon, the State Department determined that the security team's actions "fell within approved rules governing the use of force," according to an official from the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Neither U.S. Embassy officials nor Blackwater representatives interviewed witnesses or returned to the network, less than a quarter-mile from Baghdad's Green Zone, to investigate.
The incident shows how American officials responsible for overseeing the security company conducted only a cursory investigation when Blackwater guards opened fire. The shooting occurred more than seven months before the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians at another Baghdad traffic circle.
The Feb. 7 shootings convulsed the Iraqi Media Network, one of the prominent symbols of the new Iraq, in anger and recrimination.
U.S. officials and the security company, now known as Blackwater Worldwide, offered no compensation or apology to the victims' families, according to relatives of the guards and officials of the network, whose programming reaches 22 million Iraqis.
"It's really surprising that Blackwater is still out there killing people," Mohammed Jasim, the Iraqi Media Network's deputy director, said in an interview. "This company came to Iraq and was supposed to provide security. They didn't learn from their mistakes. They continued and continued. They continued killing."
A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne E. Tyrrell, said the company's guards came under "precision small-arms fire" and fired back with "well-aimed shots." The company was unable to comment further because of operational security and contractual obligations, she said. "This was absolutely a provoked incident," Tyrrell said.
U.S. officials were "overwhelmingly convinced" that the Blackwater guards acted appropriately, based on information they had provided, according to the diplomatic security official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is investigating private security matters, including previous Blackwater shootings. Shortly after the Feb. 7 incident, the official said, the U.S. Embassy briefed an Iraqi government official and invited him to discuss the matter further, but the embassy never heard from him again.
Under State Department rules for the use of force, security contractors are authorized to use deadly force only if there is no safe alternative and the guards or the people they are protecting face "imminent and grave danger." The Blackwater guards said they came under fire from the building and responded, the security official said.
"The embassy conducted a review of the circumstances surrounding the whole shooting incident and essentially what happened is, after going over all the reports, interviewing all the personnel that were involved in it, talking with people that were coming back in the motorcade, they concluded that the actions of the security team fell within the approved rules," the official said.
"To say Blackwater was the only source of information for this investigation is completely false," the security official added. U.S. officials declined to say who else was contacted as part of the probe or to provide any details about the assertions of Blackwater guards that they came under fire.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry has forwarded information about the Feb. 7 incident and five other fatal shootings involving Blackwater to the U.S. Embassy, which never responded, it said.
The Iraqi Media Network sought to sue Blackwater in an Iraqi court, according to Faisal Rahdi, the network's legal adviser. A judge rejected the petition, he said, citing a 2004 law signed by L. Paul Bremer, the administrator for the now-defunct U.S. occupation authority. That law, which the Iraqi government has moved to overturn, granted contractors immunity from the Iraqi legal process.
An internal review of the State Department's handling of private security recently found serious deficiencies in the agency's supervision of contractors, including Blackwater. The State Department's security chief, Richard J. Griffin, was forced to resign last month after the report was released.
The Feb. 7 incident was one of at least 10 fatal shootings involving Blackwater since June 2005, including three that led to confrontations between the security company and the Iraqi government in the months before the pivotal Sept. 16 incident at Nisoor Square.
Blackwater provides security for State Department employees traveling in Iraq. The company has received more than $1 billion in U.S. government contracts since 2001, including $832 million for security services in Iraq over the past two years. Blackwater employs 861 guards in Baghdad, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The Iraqi Media Network shootings were particularly sensitive because Blackwater fired from one Iraqi government compound into another. The network is a state-funded corporation modeled after the BBC and launched by the U.S. government. After the March 2003 invasion, the network replaced the state-run television system that once dispensed propaganda for the government of then-President Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Media Network operates several newspapers, radio stations and a flagship TV network, al-Iraqiya.
"What really shocked us is that our colleagues were killed inside their workplace, in a place that was supposed to be secure," said Abbas A. Salim, the network's news director. "The IMN, its main job is to explain democracy to the people and support the new Iraq."
News of the shootings was broadcast on al-Iraqiya, which reaches about 85 percent of Iraq's population.'Nabras Is Hit!'
On the morning of the incident, a convoy of four armored SUVs pulled up at a traffic circle that separates the Justice Ministry from the back of the Iraqi Media Network's sprawling compound. About 20 Blackwater guards got out of the vehicles, according to witnesses.
"Before they went inside, they asked me what this other building was," said Nadim Salim, a bodyguard at the Justice Ministry. "I told them, 'That's the Iraqiya network.' "
Blackwater snipers set up on the Justice Ministry roof, taking cover behind concrete walls that crown the seven-story building. Blackwater "had full control over the guys at Iraqiya because they were higher than them," Salim said.
Across the circle, Nabras Mohammed Hadi manned his guard position. He sat on a chair on the third-floor balcony of an abandoned building looking out on the Justice Ministry and King Faisal Circle, near the rear gate of the Iraqi Media Network compound. The traffic circle, which features a statue of the king on horseback, connects to Haifa Street, a notoriously dangerous central Baghdad thoroughfare.
Hadi had been living inside the Iraqi Media Network complex because insurgents had threatened to kill him unless he left his state-supported job, according to Mohammed Adel Ali, a friend and fellow guard.
Hadi was dressed in dark-green military camouflage and held an AK-47 assault rifle. On the same balcony, about 20 feet to his left, another network guard manned a belt-fed machine gun. Two guard towers overlooked the network's rear gate, one flying the Iraqi flag. Hadi was positioned below the snipers, who stood about 450 feet away, near a large Iraqi flag on top of the Justice Ministry.
Hadi stood up in response to a commotion that suddenly broke out in the circle, according to several of his fellow guards. The time was between 11 a.m. and noon. "The problem started because some people wanted to park their car there," said one guard, Adel Saadi. "Our guards didn't allow them, because we were worried about car bombs. But they kept insisting."
Hadi yelled at the civilians to move back, according to Ali, who was also nearby. "He was shouting: 'Move away from here. You can't stay here. This is a government building.' While he was shouting, he was holding his gun in a ready position. That's when the sniper shot him."
It remains unclear what precipitated the shooting. The Blackwater guards said they came under fire from the building and responded, the diplomatic security official and the Blackwater spokeswoman said. Hadi's colleagues said he never fired his weapon. Saadi said he heard one shot, looked up and saw Hadi falling.
Saadi and Ali raced up the stairs with several other guards, Ali yelling: "Nabras is hit! Nabras is hit!" The guards said they believed the compound was under attack from insurgents. "We never thought that people would be shooting at us from the Ministry of Justice," said Hussein Abdul Hassan, the guards' chief. "It's a government building. No one would expect it."
The guards crawled toward Hadi, shielded by a three-foot-high wall. The sniper was still firing, they said. "Anyone crawling or walking, he shot at them," Hassan said. At least three bullets lodged in the building's facade. The guards found Hadi in the corner with a bullet through his head.
As they tried to move him, another shot rang out. It struck Azhar Abdullah al-Maliki, 31, another guard. His colleagues said he had raised his head above the low wall and was shot.
The Blackwater guards said they believed they were again under immediate threat and responded with lethal force, the security official said.
Maliki's older brother, Zuhair, said Maliki had taken the job just six weeks earlier. He lived with 21 members of his family, including his wife and three children, in a tiny house in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum.
Maliki slumped to the ground next to Hadi. "People were yelling, 'Azhar, what's wrong?' " Hassan said. "When they went to move him, they saw the blood spurting from his neck."
The guards quickly withdrew, ceding authority to an Iraqi army company that controls the neighborhood, Salihiya. The company commander, Capt. Ahmed Thamir Abood, said he sent soldiers up to the balcony to recover the bodies. Hadi was dead. Maliki was evacuated to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead of a gunshot wound to the neck at 2 p.m., according to his death certificate.
Abood, a short, stocky man who speaks halting English, said he learned from the Justice Ministry that snipers from a U.S. security company -- not insurgents -- had shot the guards. He drove in a Humvee with one of his lieutenants to the ministry. The Blackwater guards were gathered in the traffic circle, he said, preparing to leave. Most were stocky, with goatees and small communication devices in their ears.
"I told them, 'I want to speak with the guy who is in charge of this unit,' " he said.
The Blackwater guards started toying with him, Abood said.
"He's in charge," said one, pointing at one of his colleagues.
"No, he's in charge," said another.
"They didn't care what I was saying," Abood said.
Abood said he spotted an American who appeared to be the diplomat being escorted by Blackwater. The man was young, perhaps in his 30s, and wore a navy blue sport coat, a tie and a combat helmet, Abood said. He tried to approach the diplomat, but the Blackwater guards stood in his way, he said.
Abood said he spoke to another Blackwater guard. "I introduced myself in English, but he didn't even look at me," he said. "I told him there are two people dead up there. He told me, 'Wait by this guy.' Then that guy told me to wait by another guy."
Abood said he was still waiting when the Blackwater guards climbed inside their vehicles, set off smoke grenades in the circle and sped away in a green-and-orange cloud toward the Green Zone.
Security contractors are instructed to leave the scene of a shooting as quickly as possible to ensure the safety of the person under their protection, according to the diplomatic security official. The Blackwater team followed standard operating procedures, the official said.'Abu Sajad Is Dead'
Pandemonium had broken out inside the media network compound. Hundreds of employees were locked down inside the buildings, afraid of more shooting. A leader of the guard team, Thair Salaam, tried to assemble his men. He noticed that one was missing: a 40-year-old armorer named Sabah Salman, also known as Abu Sajad.
"We couldn't find him, no one could find him," Salaam said. "Then suddenly we got a call: 'Abu Sajad is dead.' That was more than an hour after the first shooting."
Guards found Salman's body on the balcony. He had been shot in the side. Salaam said he believed Salman was shot by a sniper while trying to retrieve Hadi's weapon.
"He went up there without a gun," Salaam said. "I don't know why they shot him."
Salman, like the two other guards, was poor, his colleagues said. He had taken responsibility for a second family after his brother was killed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He helped support 17 children, including eight of his own. Salman was diabetic and often sick, according to fellow guard Mohammed Adel Ali.
He and the other guards earned 285,000 Iraqi dinars a month, about $231. That was less than half of what Blackwater security guards earn in a day.
Jasim, the Iraqi Media Network deputy director, said the company was uncertain where to turn.
The Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Iraq police and an Iraqi Media Network internal investigation identified Blackwater's involvement in the shootings.
"On Feb. 7, members of Blackwater opened fire from the roof of the Ministry of Justice building, intentionally and without any provocation, shooting three members of our security team which led to their deaths while they were on duty inside the network complex," the Iraqi Media Network report concluded.
A Salihiya police investigator, misspelling Blackwater, wrote: "By collecting information and questioning the Ministry of Justice guards, it became clear that the armed personnel, who came to the Ministry of Justice, who were using special security vehicles and caused the incident and killed guards of the Iraqi Media Network, they are working with the company of BlackRwatey for special security."
"But these people were not well known to us," Jasim said. "We don't know where they are located or who they report to. Are they at the Green Zone, at the airport? We don't know how to contact them."
Abbas, the news director, said he called a U.S. military official, who told him that the military had no information about the incident.
Follow-up investigations can be difficult in a war zone environment, the diplomatic security official said. "The State Department investigates security contractor incident scenes except when to do so would endanger the lives of the investigators," he said, adding that he was not specifically addressing the Feb. 7 incident.
The network gave the families of each of the victims 1 million dinars, or about $812, to assist with burial. The network then hired one member from each family to make up for the lost income.
The diplomatic security official said the U.S. government offered no compensation because the investigation concluded that the Blackwater guards fired in self-defense. "It is the State Department policy to offer ex gratia condolence payments when innocent civilians have been hurt," he said. "In this case, the investigation determined that the security detail had been fired upon, and therefore the issue of payments did not arise."
Rahdi, the legal adviser, said the company had hoped to recover more money for the families by suing Blackwater. But he said CPA Order 17, the law granting contractors immunity, made it impossible.
"I'm talking to you from my point of view as someone representing the law," Rahdi said. "Even if I go to the U.S. ambassador, even if I go to Bush, they go by the law. If there is no law to go after them -- what are they going to do?"
"America doesn't need more enemies in Iraq," he added. "When someone loses one of his relatives, or one of his friends who gets killed by an American and that American is protected -- untouchable -- because of a law that was set by an American, this definitely will create new enemies for the United States."
Jasim said he is still hopeful that Blackwater or the U.S. government will provide assistance.
"Those three people were killed in cold blood," he said. "They have families to support. They should at least forward a letter of apology so we can give that to their relatives. That would give them some relief."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.