Day of mixed emotions in Baghdad: Elation for U.S., but anger for Iraqis

By Michael Hastings
Saturday, January 2, 2010

BAGHDAD -- U.S. commanders in Iraq began the new year Friday by trumpeting a milestone -- their first month without a combat death since the start of the war -- and by sending a clear signal that their focus in 2010 will be on getting out of the country that American forces invaded nearly seven years ago.

But for Iraqis, Friday was marked by bitter recriminations over a U.S. judge's decision to dismiss charges against five Blackwater security guards who had been accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 20 others in 2007 -- a reminder that resentments toward the American occupation will linger long after U.S. troops have gone home.

The shootings, in which the guards allegedly opened fire with grenade launchers and machine guns on civilians in a busy Baghdad traffic circle, became to many Iraqis a symbol of U.S. disregard for their lives. Seventeen people were killed in the attack and 27 were wounded, but prosecutors said they did not have sufficient evidence to press charges on behalf of all the victims.

Family members of the dead and survivors said Thursday's decision added a painful epilogue to the incident, making a mockery of the justice that the United States was supposed to bring to their country.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina threw out the indictments because he found that prosecutors and agents had improperly used statements the guards had provided to the State Department with the understanding that the statements would not be used against them. An attorney for the guards has said they fired in self-defense.

Iraqis described the decision as unfathomable.

"They're letting the criminals who killed and burned people inside their cars escape? How can I forget what they did to my body with bullets, and the dear part of me that they took," said Mahdi Abdul Khudor, 45, who lost an eye in the shooting and suffered other wounds. "I'll be ready to reconcile with the Americans when they bring me back my eye."

The Iraqi government also protested and said it will pursue legal action.

"What happened yesterday confirms that the trial was biased," said Ali Adeeb, a lawmaker and top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. "This was an unreasonable, criminal operation, and there should have been justice."

Adeeb said the Iraqi government will put diplomatic pressure on the United States to ensure that the victims "get justice."

But as Iraqi officials were reviewing their options -- ones that legal experts have said are unlikely to change the outcome -- U.S. military commanders were seeking to signal a new chapter in the war.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, leader of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, attended a ceremony at Camp Victory in Baghdad marking the end of Multi-National Force-Iraq, which is the technical name for the U.S.-led coalition that has waged war here. It is being replaced by United States Forces-Iraq, a recognition that for practical purposes, the coalition is no more.

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