Contractors Charged in '07 Iraq Deaths
Manslaughter Indictment Paints Detailed Picture of Incident That Sparked Outrage
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; Page A02
Federal prosecutors yesterday described a blaze of gunfire and grenade explosions unleashed by six Blackwater Worldwide security guards in a busy Baghdad square last year, calling it an "unprovoked and illegal attack" on unarmed Iraqi civilians that killed at least 14 and wounded 20.
One man was shot in the chest while he raised his arms in the air, prosecutors said. Another was wounded when a contractor's grenade detonated in a nearby girls school, and "many were shot inside of civilian vehicles while attempting to flee," prosecutors said in bringing federal manslaughter charges against the guards in the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting.
"None of the victims of this shooting were armed," said Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District, who announced the 35-count indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Washington. "None of them was an insurgent."
The indictment, unsealed yesterday, offered the most detailed picture yet of the deadly episode that strained U.S.-Iraqi relations and raised serious questions about the use of security contractors in war zones. The version of events backed findings by the Iraqi government and the U.S. military, which determined that the security guards, all former military personnel, opened fire without cause.
Five of the guards were charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter and one count of using a firearm during a crime of violence. A sixth guard pleaded guilty on Friday, in U.S. District Court in Washington, to voluntary manslaughter and attempting to commit manslaughter. He was released on his own recognizance, officials said.
Prosecutors said manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, not murder or attempted murder, were the appropriate charges for a shooting in the haze of a war zone. "These offenses occurred in a difficult situation, and so that was taken into account in the way this case was charged," said J. Patrick Rowan, assistant U.S. attorney general for national security.
The guards' attorneys say that their clients opened fire in self-defense and that the indictment was politically motivated. "We are confident that none of these five men committed any crime," said David Schertler, who represents one of the contractors. "We are confident that we will be able to prove that."
At the time of the incident, the six guards worked for Blackwater Worldwide, a North Carolina-based security firm that has a contract to protect State Department personnel in Iraq. They were part of a 19-member Blackwater convoy of four heavily armored trucks that used the call sign Raven 23. Their job was to provide "back-up fire support for other Blackwater personal security details operating" in Baghdad, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
About noon Sept. 16, a Tuesday, the convoy left the Green Zone, a heavily fortified section of Baghdad housing U.S. diplomatic and military installations and much of the Iraqi government. Prosecutors wrote that the convoy left the zone to respond to a car bombing near another Blackwater convoy about a mile from Nisoor Square.
Raven 23 left the Green Zone without permission and was ordered by a U.S. Embassy official to return "as soon as possible," prosecutors wrote.
Instead, the convoy set up a "blockade" at Nisoor Square to prevent cars from traveling through a busy traffic circle. A white Kia sedan slowly approached the convoy, and Blackwater guards opened fire with assault rifles, a machine gun and a grenade launcher, prosecutors wrote.
The assault killed Ahmed Hathem Ahmed Al Rybia'y, a medical student, and his mother, Al Khazali, a doctor.