By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 26, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Guards employed by Unity Resources Group, a security company responsible for the shooting deaths of two Iraqi women here Oct. 9, had shot and seriously wounded a man driving a van 3 1/2 months earlier on the same Baghdad thoroughfare, according to four witnesses.
The company that hired Unity, RTI International, a North Carolina-based firm that promotes democracy in Iraq under a U.S. government contract, initially said it had no information about the previously undisclosed June 24 shooting. RTI later said it discovered internal reports about the incident following detailed inquiries from The Washington Post.
The case demonstrates how security companies such as Unity operate in a lawless void in Iraq, with many shooting incidents escaping official or public scrutiny. The lack of oversight is the focus of a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission on the use of private security contractors that was formed after guards for Blackwater Worldwide killed 17 civilians in Baghdad on Sept. 16.
RTI said Unity conducted a two-month investigation into the June 24 shooting but later deleted references to a casualty from its records because it was unable to identify the victim. "The incident was reported through formal channels at the time," RTI spokesman Patrick Gibbons said. Unity referred all questions about the case to RTI.
None of the witnesses interviewed by The Post said they had been contacted by Unity or RTI. Three of the witnesses described how the van driver's hand was nearly severed but said they never learned his identity.
Most of the more than 100 security firms in Iraq work under contracts or subcontracts for government agencies, private companies or individuals, creating layers of responsibility that make oversight difficult. Unity effectively regulates itself: The company reported 38 weapons-discharge incidents while protecting RTI employees over the past two years, according to a source familiar with the data. In each instance, the company conducted its own investigation.
RTI, a not-for-profit research company that has received at least $480 million for its efforts to strengthen local governance in Iraq, said it reports the incidents to its own employer, the U.S. Agency for International Development. But USAID, which is affiliated with the State Department, does not investigate, according to USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"USAID does not direct the security arrangements of its contractors," said Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman. "The contractor is contractually responsible for the safety of its employees. That's as far as the connection goes. If you want more details, I would refer you to RTI."
In the June 24 incident, Unity's guards raked a white van with automatic-weapons fire around 7 a.m. near a kindergarten on Karrada Street, a six-lane boulevard in central Baghdad. Witnesses said they used a crowbar to free the driver from the vehicle after he crashed into a lamppost. They said his left hand hung limply, attached only by skin. The man was semi-conscious when he was taken to the hospital in a civilian vehicle, the witnesses said.
"This guy, he wasn't doing anything threatening, but he didn't see them, so they shot him," said Amir Thamir, 28, who works at al-Mehdi bakery, about 20 yards from where the incident occurred.
On Oct. 9, about 250 yards up the same street, Unity guards sprayed a white Oldsmobile with dozens of bullets, killing two women in an incident that drew international attention because it occurred three weeks after the Blackwater shooting.
Unity said at the time that its guards opened fire after the driver failed to respond to warning signals. Through RTI, the company offered the same explanation for the June 24 incident.
The area where the incidents occurred is near a fortified complex, known as the Marble compound, that is used by Unity and RTI personnel. Unity convoys frequently drive along Karrada Street, shuttling RTI personnel to and from Baghdad's Green Zone.
Merchants along Karrada Street, the main artery of an affluent retail district, said the area has become a virtual shooting gallery for armed guards traveling in sport-utility vehicles. "Whoever gets near them, they will shoot at them," said Sirry Abdul Latif, 50, a furniture shop employee, who said there had been several such shootings in the neighborhood.
A third incident occurred in the spring along the same stretch of Karrada Street in front of a popular social club, according to seven witnesses. An unidentified private security guard opened fire on a white Toyota sedan, the witnesses said, killing a male driver with a shot to the chest before speeding away. There was no indication that Unity was involved in that shooting.
Unity Resources Group is run by Australians, including former military personnel. It is headquartered in Dubai and registered in Singapore. RTI has paid the company nearly $50 million, according to RTI figures. Unity also provides security for the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. taxpayer-funded organization that conducts democracy projects in Iraq under a State Department contract.
"What we liked about URG, first of all, is that they were considered to be a little more mature," said John Lister, the former Iraq country director for the National Democratic Institute.
Unity guards have come under attack on numerous occasions; the company's co-director once described driving through Baghdad as "like being on a 'Mad Max' film set." Insurgents ambushed one of the company's convoys in January in Baghdad, killing a 28-year-old Ohio woman employed by the institute.
Ronald W. Johnson, RTI's executive vice president for international development, said RTI hired Unity partly because it was licensed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "We wanted a security firm that we were comfortable working with" and was also "registered to do business in Iraq," Johnson said in an interview. USAID approved Unity's contract with RTI, Johnson said.
But the licensing process does not give the Iraqi government authority over contractors, and many companies forgo a license. A 2004 law signed by L. Paul Bremer, administrator for the now-defunct U.S. occupation government, granted security contractors immunity from the Iraqi legal process. That law is still in effect.
Unity's convoys are tracked by the U.S. military through the Reconstruction Operations Center in the Green Zone. By participating in the tracking system, the company agrees to report all shooting incidents to the military. But the U.S. military has no authority over Unity because the company is not under a Defense Department contract.
In an interview, Maj. Kent Lightner of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who directs the tracking system, suggested that the reporting requirements are difficult to enforce with respect to a company such as Unity.
"The real issue is that URG is a company that is not a DoD contractor, so whether they reported incidents or not is --" Lightner paused. "I don't know, I'm walking the line on that one," he said.
Lightner said military investigators requested information about Unity's movements on Oct. 9, when the company's guards killed the two women on Karrada Street. "You're going to find out or sooner or later if they're playing by the rules or not," he said.
But a military spokesman, Navy Capt. Victor Beck, said he was unaware of any U.S. government investigation into that shooting incident or any other involving Unity. RTI and the U.S. Embassy said Unity is cooperating with Iraqi authorities.
The June 24 incident illustrates how gaps in oversight can preclude a thorough investigation.
Four witnesses said the Unity convoy opened fire after encountering the white van while traveling westbound in light, early morning traffic. One witness said the van was 40 to 60 yards behind the convoy after entering Karrada Street from a side road. The Unity guards waved two red flags to warn the driver, then quickly opened fire, according to the witness, a local resident who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The van swerved to the right and crashed into a lamppost, according to Thamir, the al-Mehdi bakery worker, and Tahir Sia, 75, who also works there. After wrenching open the passenger-side door, Thamir and Sia said, they pulled out the injured driver, who had white hair, appeared to be about 60 and was covered in blood. The man's left wrist was slashed diagonally, according to Thamir.
"He was probably hit on other parts of his body, but the major wound was on his arm," Thamir said.
Thamir and Sia said that local police never questioned them about the incident and that the man's fate and identity were unknown. Police in Karrada, leafing through a large, handwritten logbook with pages spilling from its spine, said they were unable to find a record of the incident.
Word of the shooting spread through the Green Zone "like wildfire," said a former RTI employee who requested anonymity out of concern that he would jeopardize future employment as a government contractor.
After the Oct. 9 shooting, The Post was told about an earlier Unity incident on Karrada Street that had caused one or more casualties. RTI initially said it had no information about such a shooting, but later said it discovered internal records of the incident after The Post provided the witnesses' detailed accounts.
"We are aware of an incident in which shots were fired at a white van on June 24, 2007," Gibbons, the company spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. "A convoy was approached by a white van that failed to heed escalated warnings (arm signals, flares and warning shots). Shots were then fired, and the van was disabled along the median."
Gibbons wrote that Unity had conducted a "two-month investigation" but was unable to find any information indicating that a casualty had occurred.
Informed that several witnesses had said the van's driver incurred serious injuries, Gibbons e-mailed an amended report from Willard E. Marsden Jr., RTI's director for international security.
According to that report, one of Unity's Iraqi guards "witnessed the victim being placed into a privately owned vehicle. It was understood that the vehicle would transport the victim to the hospital."
When an Iraqi employee was later dispatched to the hospital, he was "unable to find either the victim or any indication that he had been treated and/or released."
As a result, Marsden wrote, "later URG reports deleted the reference to the victim being taken to the hospital."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.