“We learned a long time ago that there would be no accountability,” said Ali Hassan, a computer engineer from Baghdad. “I just don’t understand why Trump is bringing this up now.”
Almost 5,000 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which replaced Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a political system that entrenched sectarianism and corruption. Although there is no generally agreed figure for violent deaths among Iraqi civilians since the invasion, some monitoring groups put the total at more than a quarter-million.
One of the contractors pardoned Wednesday by Trump, Nicholas Slatten, was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder after being convicted for his role in the killing of 14 unarmed Iraqis in a shooting rampage at a busy intersection. Three others — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were sentenced to between 12 and 15 years on manslaughter charges.
The men initially described the killings as self-defense. Multiple investigations found instead that they were unprovoked. Women and children, some with their hands in the air, were shot as they tried to flee. Among the dead was a young medical student, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed al-Rubiay, and his mother, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum al-Khazali.
“You know what? I have always known that his murderers would get away with it somehow even after they were prosecuted. The pardon was inevitable,” said a former schoolmate of Rubiay’s. “I don’t trust the Americans to hold their own accountable when the crimes they have committed are against Iraqis. Ahmed’s blood was spilled for nothing; his life was wasted for nothing.”
The killings sparked a global outcry over a lack of accountability for American contractors in war zones, with Blackwater emerging as the most notorious example. Although the company survived a string of Justice Department investigations, it ultimately saw its reputation go up in smoke, losing contracts and then being sold and renamed several times. The Virginia-based firm is now called Academi.
Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at London think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said the Trump administration’s decision to pardon the contractors should be seen in the broader context of failures of U.S. accountability in Iraq stretching back to the 2003 invasion.
“It shows the contradictions in American foreign policy: how a country can go abroad in pursuit of democracy, rule of law, accountability, and promote that whilst very clearly being unable to always uphold those very principles at home,” Mansour said. “I’m not sure how specific this is to President Trump as much as just another story in that U.S. foreign policy machine.”
For lawyers seeking accountability for the Nisour Square slayings, the road to prosecution was long and fraught. An early case was thrown out, then reinstated. Slatten, Slough, Liberty and Heard were not prosecuted until 2014, after dozens of Iraqis had flown to the United States to testify. They constituted one of the largest groups of foreign witnesses to testify in an American criminal trial.
One of those eyewitnesses, Haider Ahmed, a former taxi driver who was shot four times in the leg, said Wednesday that his injuries still shape his life. His legs shake, and he cannot stand for long, he said.
“I went to that court because I thought there is a real law there. A law where I could take my rights, regardless of my color or religion,” Ahmed said. “I told the court the truth. I told them how they were just shooting at us randomly.”
“Why did I bother?”