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IRAQ: Iraqis describe violence by private U.S. security guards

by Leila FadelSeattle Times
September 28th, 2007

On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that security was improving, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.

A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was dealing with paperwork at the central office near al-Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone.

As Hussein walked out of the customs building, a U.S. Embassy convoy moved through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded by spraying the intersection with bullets.

Hussein, on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she'd held in her arms fluttered down the street.

Before the shooting stopped, four other people were killed in the beginning of eight days of violence that Iraqi officials say bolster their argument that Blackwater should be banned from working in Iraq.

During the ensuing week, as Crocker and Petraeus told Congress that President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq was beginning to work and the president gave a televised address in which he said "ordinary life was beginning to return" to Baghdad, Blackwater security guards shot at least 43 people on crowded Baghdad streets. At least 16 died.

Two Blackwater guards died in one of the incidents, triggered when a roadside bomb struck a Blackwater vehicle.

In the same eight-day period, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers, other acts of violence in the embattled capital claimed the lives of 32 people and left 87 injured, not including unidentified bodies found dumped on Baghdad's streets.

The best known of that week's incidents took place the following Sunday, Sept. 16, when Blackwater guards killed at least 11 and wounded 12 at the busy al-Nisour traffic circle in central Baghdad.

Iraqi officials said the guards were unprovoked when they opened fire on a car carrying three people, including a baby. All died. The security guards then reportedly fired at other nearby vehicles, including a minibus, killing a mother of eight. An Iraqi soldier also died.

Anne Tyrell, the company's spokeswoman, denied that the dead were civilians. "The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies," she said in an e-mail, "and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire."

A joint commission of five State Department officials, three U.S. military officials and eight Iraqis has been formed to investigate the incident. The commission has yet to meet.

Blackwater and the U.S. Embassy didn't respond to requests for information about the other incidents.

But in interviews, witnesses and survivors of each incident describe similar circumstances in which Blackwater guards took aggressive action against civilians who seemed to pose no threat.

"They killed her in cold blood," Hussein Jumaa Hassan, 30, a parking-lot attendant, said of Hussein, the clerk.

Hassan pointed to the bullet-pocked concrete column behind him. He'd hidden behind it.

"They wanted to kill us all," he said.

Days later, Blackwater guards were back in al-Khilani Square, Iraqi government officials said. This time, there was no shooting, witnesses said. Instead, the guards allegedly hurled frozen bottles of water into store windows and windshields, breaking the glass.

Ibrahim Rubaie, the deputy security director at a nearby Baghdad city government office building, said Blackwater guards often shoot as they drive through the square. He said they also shot and wounded people in the square June 21, although there are no official reports of such an incident.

On Sept. 13, Blackwater guards were escorting State Department officials down Palestine Street near the Shiite enclave of Sadr City when a roadside bomb detonated, ripping through a Blackwater vehicle.

The blast killed two Blackwater guards. As other guards went to retrieve the dead, they fired in several directions, witnesses said.

Mohammed Mazin was at home when he heard the bang, which shattered one of his windows.

When he and his son, Laith, went to the roof to see what was going on, they saw security contractors shooting in different directions as a helicopter hovered overhead. Bullets flew through his windows, he said.

No civilians were killed that day, but five were wounded, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry.

The following Sunday, Blackwater guards opened fire as the State Department convoy they were escorting crossed in front of stopped traffic at the al-Nisour traffic circle.

While U.S. officials have offered no explanation of what occurred that day, witnesses and Iraqi investigators say the guards' first target was a car that either hadn't quite stopped or was trying to nudge its way to the front of traffic.

In the car were a man whose name is uncertain; Mahasin Muhsin, a mother and doctor; and Muhsin's young son. The guards first shot the man, who was driving. As Muhsin screamed, a Blackwater guard shot her. The car exploded, killing Muhsin and the child, witnesses said.

Afrah Sattar, 27, said she was on a bus approaching the square when she saw the guards fire on the car. She and her mother, Ghania Hussein, were headed to pick up proof of Sattar's Iraqi citizenship for an upcoming trip to a religious shrine in Iran.

When she saw the gunmen turn toward the bus, Sattar said, she looked at her mother in fear. "They're going to shoot at us, Mama," she said. Moments later, a fatal bullet pierced her mother's skull and another struck her shoulder, Sattar recalled.

"They are killers," she said of the Blackwater guards. "I swear to God, not one bullet was shot at them. Why did they shoot us? My mother didn't carry a weapon."

McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Hussein Kadhim and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.





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