By Michael Hastings
Saturday, January 2, 2010; A01
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.
The newly minted command was formed to oversee the drawdown of U.S. forces, which is to proceed rapidly throughout 2010 and be completed by December 2011. U.S. commanders used the occasion Friday to herald what Odierno said is a country that has "moved out of the darkness and into the light of hope."
"In 2006, when I flew over Baghdad, I remember looking down on a city cloaked by darkness and gripped in fear," Odierno said. "Today, when I fly over Baghdad, I see hope, with bright lights and busy traffic."
Over the past two years, he said, there has been at least a 90 percent decline in high-profile attacks, civilian casualties and U.S. casualties.
There were no U.S. combat deaths in December, Odierno said, a first for the war.
Attacks have dropped from more than 200 a day two years ago to about 15 a day now, Petraeus said.
The Blackwater shooting on Sept. 17, 2007, came during a period that Petraeus and Odierno referred to as Iraq's "dark days," when the country was close to the height of a sectarian war.
Of the judge's decision, Odierno said at a news conference after the ceremony: "We're upset when we believe that people might have caused a crime and they're not held accountable."
But, he said, "the bottom line is, using the rule of law, if the evidence is obviously not there, or was collected illegally, or whatever the reason is, and it can't be used, that's always a problem. It's a lesson in the rule of law."
The Iraqi government was reluctant to take any lessons from the United States on Friday.
"The Iraqis don't need to get lessons from others," said Saleem Abdullah, a lawmaker for the largest Sunni party, Tawafuq. "If we decide to accept the lessons, they shouldn't cost us our lives."
Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, told state television that the government plans to pursue its own case against Blackwater in an Iraqi court and will appeal the U.S. decision.
The 2007 incident contributed to the departure of Blackwater's security contractors from Iraq, though the U.S. Embassy still has a helicopter contract with the company, now renamed Xe Services. Many of the company's former guards stayed in Iraq and switched to other security firms, such as Triple Canopy.
The judge's decision could fuel anti-American rhetoric ahead of what Petraeus called an "enormously" important parliamentary election scheduled for March 7. So far, most of the anger in the campaign has been directed at the Iraqi government, which many say has not done enough to provide security.
Wesam Raheem Flaih, an Iraqi soldier from the western province of Anbar who was injured during the Blackwater shooting, said that he "was destroyed by the news. I can't believe I trusted the U.S. Justice Department when they promised to protect our rights."
Firas Fadhil Abbas, whose brother Osama was killed at Nisoor Square, said that "if someone kills a dog in America, they do not escape punishment. I don't understand this trial."
Hastings is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.