By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 14, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 13 -- They came for their mothers and daughters, their brothers and fathers, the young and old who died that day. Some hobbled in on crutches. Others were helped in by relatives. One man wore dark sunglasses to hide his ruined eye. One woman cried openly, gently wiping away the tears sliding down her cheeks.
Athra Khalil, 32, told a lie to her six toddlers before bringing them to this sprawling police base on Saturday. She didn't mind. She lies to them every day.
"Now, they ask me, 'Where's my father?' I always tell them he's at work," said Khalil, staring at her daughter in the hot-pink sweater.
"Today, I told them we are going to have a nice lunch to celebrate the end of Eid," she added, referring to the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.
Her husband and the others were all shot by employees of the U.S.-based security contractor Blackwater Worldwide, an incident that reshaped the lives of these families -- and the direction of their nation. Now the relatives had arrived here to challenge a group of Americans with one question: Can they trust the United States to bring those contractors to justice?
Last week, five of the contractors were indicted on charges including manslaughter for the September 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square that killed at least 14 Iraqis and injured at least 20 others. A sixth Blackwater guard negotiated a plea agreement to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
On Saturday, a group of U.S. prosecutors arrived to explain to the families of the victims and the wounded both the charges and the procedures of the U.S. judicial system.
Most in the crowd had already imagined the punishment they would hand out, if only they could.
"We hope they jail them for life," said Douraid Ishmail, 31, whose brother Oday was killed when a bullet tore through his head. Ishmail held Oday's 4-year-old son Zaitoon in his lap.
"It's not enough for us that they jail them," said Khatoon Hassan, 55. "They have to burn them alive." She had accompanied her neighbor, Entisar Atchan, whose 18-year-old son was killed in the square. He was a soldier and the family depended on his salary.
Zuhair Hussein, the mother of Oday, and his wife and three children also depended on his salary. They hoped the Americans would talk about compensation. "A few days ago, when it rained, our roof started leaking," Hussein lamented. "Now, I give the children only small portions of food."
Mehdi Abdul Khudir wants something he cannot have. "If I am giving all the money in the world, can I ever get my eye back?" asked Khudir, staring from his black sunglasses. "There is no court in the world that can bring my eye back."
The Iraqis sat inside a sterile, white-walled room. Windows were covered by blue prints decorated with idyllic pictures of villages, parks and mountains. Just outside the base was the reminder of how imperfect their world truly was: Nisoor Square.
The Sept. 16, 2007, shooting triggered international outrage and launched congressional and FBI probes. Iraqis across the nation, of every sect, were furious at the actions of foreign security contractors, even more so by the blanket legal immunity they possessed, courtesy of the U.S. government. The shooting prompted the Iraqi government to demand the lifting of such immunity in a new security agreement with the United States signed earlier this month, although the protection remains for security contractors working with on-duty U.S. troops.
But hardly any of this mattered to those in the room. They listened intently as U.S. prosecutor Kenneth Kohl gave a brief statement to reporters.
"The aim of our visit is to meet the families of the victims and explain the charges that have been filed in the United States and to make ourselves available to any questions they might have," Kohl said.
To convince Entisar Atchan, Kohl had a lot to overcome. "I hate the Americans. They killed my only son. Until now, I have seen nothing from the Americans to get my rights," Atchan said.
Kohl spoke of the lengthy sentences that the Blackwater employees face if convicted: at least 30 years and perhaps the rest of their lives. Then he stressed that "sentencing will be left as a matter for the judge."
Hassan, Atchan's neighbor, snorted. "We want the jail for the whole life, not for 30 years," she said.
"We want execution," Atchan said. "When I remember this incident, fire burns inside my heart. He was my only son. And he joined the army to help feed us. And now he is gone."
After the meeting, Douraid Ishmail said he was not sure that the trial would bring justice. It is being conducted outside Iraq, and it might run on for months. But the Americans, he said, "promised us that justice will prevail."
"Today's meeting brought us some confidence," he added.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.