The Blackwater Incident at Baghdad's Nisoor Square
Tracing the Paths of 5 Who Died in a Storm of Gunfire
Thursday, October 4, 2007; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Oct. 3 -- Minutes after noon on Sept. 16, Ali Khalil drove his black motorcycle toward Nisoor Square. Three days earlier, the 54-year-old blacksmith and father of six children had felt safe enough in the capital to reopen his shop.
Osama Fadhil Abbas, a 40-year-old car dealer, was approaching the square in his white truck, on his way to wire $1,000 to Dubai.
Mehasin Muhsin Kadhum, a 46-year-old doctor, and her eldest son, Ahmed Haitham, 20, were nearing the square in their white sedan, after a morning of errands that included picking up college application forms for Kadhum's daughter.
Fifteen minutes later, the convoy sped away through a thick cloud generated by smoke bombs, leaving behind a tableau of bullet-pocked cars and broken lives. The events of that afternoon are still contested, but what is clear is that many of those killed and wounded were civilians struggling with the vicissitudes of their turbulent nation.
The victims were as young as 11 and as old as 55, according to hospital records. They were middle class and poor. They included college students, day laborers and professionals vital to rebuilding Iraq. There was a mother and her daughter. The daughter lived. There was a taxi driver, only 25, who was the sole provider for his parents and seven siblings. He died.
Blackwater guards say they were ambushed and shot at by Iraqi policemen and civilians. Ten eyewitnesses and Iraqi police officials insisted in interviews that the guards opened fire in the square, unprovoked, and continued shooting even as civilians fled for their lives. Hospital records show 14 dead and 18 injured, a toll higher than most previous official tallies.
The carnage has sparked outrage and demands to reform the private contractor industry. Almost three weeks later, the collective memory of Iraqis at the scene is raw.
"It was catastrophic. So many innocent people were killed," recalled Zina Fadhil, 21, a pharmacist. That day, she huddled in fear inside her store about 100 yards from the square as Blackwater helicopters hovered above. Like other eyewitnesses, she said she saw Blackwater guards firing down from the helicopters, an allegation the security firm denies.
"I am a peaceful person, but I wished I could have shot those people in the helicopters," Fadhil continued, her soft voice rising.
Not one of the victims or family members interviewed had been aware that Blackwater was immune to prosecution in Iraq under an order by U.S. administrators after the 2003 invasion.
"Why is the blood of Iraqis so free for everyone to spill?" asked Sahib Nasr, the father of one of the victims.