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The Blackwater/Nisoor Square Massacre

"Unprovoked" Baghdad Bloodbath Leaves 17 Civilians dead on September 16, 2007

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blackwater worldwide logo

The Blackwater Worldwide logo, before the company again changed name.

On Sept. 16, 2007, the private security firm known as Blackwater's Team 4 was escorting Kerry Pelzman, a U.S. Agency for International Development official (USAID), to a planning meeting for a joint U.S.-Iraqi infrastructure project in a Baghdad compound. During the meeting, a car bomb exploded about 200 yards from the meeting's location. It didn't injure anyone at the meeting. Blackwater requested back-up. Tactical Support Team 22 and 23 were dispatched. Team 23 was referred to as Raven 23.

Team 22 and Team 4 evacuated the USAID official while Team 23's four armored vehicles and 20 mercenaries, on its way to provide support to the other two teams, arrived at Baghdad's Mansour traffic circle known as Nisoor Square (the three-road traffic circle is actually an oval). The four armored vehicles moved to take up positions at four almost equidistant cardinal points on the square to stop traffic and clear the way for the other Blackwater convoys to drive through. An Iraqi policeman tried to halt traffic and avoid the consequences of a frequent maneuver by mercenary companies--driving against traffic.

A Family Mowed Down

Ahmad Hathem al-Rubaie, a third-year medical student on his way to being a surgeon, was driving with his mother (an allergist) in a white Opel and running errands in that part of Baghdad. After dropping off Ahmad's father (a pathologist) near a hospital and picking up a college application for Ahmad's sister, Ahmad and his mother reached Nisoor Square moments after noon. Before actually entering the square, a gunner on one of the Blackwater's armored vehicles opened fire. A bullet split Ahmed's head. Ahmed's foot stayed on the accelerator, so the Opel kept rolling into the square. The traffic cop signaled the Blackwater mercenaries to stop shooting. Blackwater's men fired further volleys, including a rocket-propelled grenade, killing Ahmad's mother.

At that point men from all four Blackwater vehicles began firing into the square. Three witnesses reported seeing one of Blackwater's characteristic black helicopters firing into the square as well. Civilians were shot as they fled, including in two cars whose back windshields were shattered by bullets--but not the front windshields.

What Eyewitnesses Saw

Writing in Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq (Da Capo, 2008), Steve Fainaru reports:

Mohammed Hafiz, the thirty-seven-year-old owner of an auto parts business, was driving behind Ahmed and Mahasin. "We were six persons in the car: me, my son, my sister and her three sons. The four children were in the backseat."

Hafiz said about thirty bullets struck his car. One struck his ten—year-old son, Ali. "When the shooting started, I told everybody to get their heads down. I could hear the children screaming in fear. When the shooting stopped, I raised my head and heard my nephew shouting at me, Ali is dead, Ali is dead.’ When I held him, his head was badly wounded, but his heart was still beating. I thought there was a chance and I rushed him to the hospital. The doctor told me that he was clinically dead and the chance of his surviva1 was very slim. One hour later, Ali died."

Three weeks after the massacre, Hafiz, weeping as he described the ordeal to the Associated Press, said neighborhood kids, unaware his son had died, still came around to see if Au could come out and play.

At least one Blackwater guard drew his weapon on his own colleagues to attempt to stop the shooting, Fainaru reports, to no avail.

Blackwater’s Deceptive Claims

By the time the shooting was over, 14 Iraqis (or 17 by some accounts) had been killed and 20 wounded.

The American embassy produced a "spot report" that day claiming that Blackwater had come under fire from an "estimated 8-10 persons" who "fired from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi Police uniforms. The team returned defensive fire..." The report was printed on State Department stationery. But it was written by Darren Hanner--a Blackwater employee.

Men from the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division arrived at Nisoor Square moments after the shooting. They found no shell casings from AK-47s (the kind used by insurgents or the Iraqi police), but clangs of casings from American-made weaponry. The First Cavalry concluded in a report that there was "no enemy activity involved" and that the shooting was an unprovoked "criminal event," according to Fainaru's reporting.

An Iraqi government inquiry completed in early October concluded that Blackwater opened fire without provocation.

The Iraqi government revoked Blackwater's license the day after the massacre. Blackwater kept operating in Iraq without a license anyway. In February 2009, the U.S. government decidded it would not renew Blackwater's license to operate in Iraq, though it was unclear when, precisely, the firm would stop operating there.

Justice Department Flubs the Case

On Dec. 4, 2008, the Justice Department indicted five men who were Blackwater employees and members of Raven 23 at Nisoor Square. They were: Dustin Laurent Heard; Paul Slough; Nick Slatten; Donald Ball; and Evan Liberty. On Dec. 31, 2009, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed all charges due to Justice Department missteps and politics that tainted the gathering of evidence and violated the defendants' constitutional rights.

Urbina's ruling had nothing to do with the actual guilt or innocence of the Blackwater mercenaries that day at Nisoor Square, but with the mishandling of the prosecution's case against them. "When a judge, upon close examination of the procedures that bring a criminal matter before the court, concludes that the process aimed at bringing the accused to trial has compromised the constitutional rights of the accused, it behooves the court to grant relief in the fashion prescribed by law," Urbina concluded. "Such is the case here."

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