By Karen DeYoung and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
At least three Iraqis appeared yesterday before a federal grand jury hearing evidence in the September shootings in Baghdad by Blackwater Worldwide security guards that left 17 Iraqis dead.
After an FBI investigation last year, federal prosecutors have been seeking to determine whether the contractors, who are immune from Iraqi law under a 2003 U.S. occupation decree, can be charged with any crime in the United States. The Iraqi government alleged that the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad's Nissor Square were an unprovoked attack on civilians.
Virginia-based Blackwater, whose personnel said they were responding to a threat against a U.S. diplomatic convoy, insisted they had acted in self-defense after being fired upon. A preliminary U.S. military inquiry shortly after the incident concluded that only the contractors had fired.
The Iraqis testifying yesterday did not respond to reporters' questions as they entered the grand jury room at the U.S. District Court building in Washington. When they left three hours later, they were escorted by two prosecutors and trailed for blocks by a platoon of television cameramen and photographers. One of the witnesses clutched what appeared to be a family photograph.
The witnesses were flanked by federal prosecutors Kenneth Kohl and Stephen Ponticiello, who also declined to comment. Kohl carried a large rolled-up street map.
An Iraqi police major told the Associated Press in Baghdad that two of his officers were flown to the United States several days ago to testify and would remain here for two weeks. The grand jury has also heard testimony from Blackwater personnel and U.S. officials.
The Sept. 16 shootings caused a rift between the U.S. and Iraqi governments and exposed Pentagon dissatisfaction with civilian security guards under contract with the State Department. U.S. military officials said that the contractors were "cowboys" whose actions put others at risk and interfered with ongoing military operations. State Department officials responded that the contractors were necessary because the military did not have the resources to protect U.S. civilian officials in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice imposed new rules on the contractors after the incident, placing video cameras in their vehicles and ordering that State Department Diplomatic Security Service agents accompany all contractor security convoys. State and the Defense Department negotiated a memorandum of understanding requiring civilian contractors to coordinate their activities with the military and firming up regulations on the use of force.
Blackwater is one of three private U.S. security companies under contract with the State Department in Iraq. The other two are Triple Canopy and DynCorp. The five-year contract for the three firms, signed in 2006, is rolled over on an annual basis and was renewed for a third year early this month. Officials said at the time that there had been no significant problems with the contractors since the September shootings, and that there was no reason not to renew the contract in the absence of any charges in the case.