For more than five years, the Bush administration’s mercenary force of choice, Blackwater Worldwide, has operated on a US government contract in Iraq in a climate that has wed immunity with impunity. Today the Justice Department took the first concrete step to hold accountable the individuals responsible for the single greatest massacre of Iraqi civilians at the hands of an armed private force deployed in Iraq by the US government.
Five Blackwater operatives turned themselves in to federal authorities in Salt Lake City on Monday morning after being officially notified that they had each been indicted on fourteen manslaughter charges and allegations they used automatic weapons in the commission of a crime. A sixth Blackwater operative has already pleaded guilty to two charges as part of an agreement to testify against his colleagues. The thirty-five-count indictment was unsealed today in Washington, DC. It stems from the operatives’ alleged role in the Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad in September 2007 that left seventeen Iraqi civilians dead and more than twenty wounded. Today’s indictments represent the first time in more than five years of the Iraq occupation that the Justice Department has brought criminal charges against armed private contractors for crimes committed against Iraqis.
Significantly, Blackwater as a company faces no charges in the case.
“The government alleges in the documents unsealed today that at least 34 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured without justification or provocation by these Blackwater security guards in the shooting at Nisour Square,” said Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security. “Today’s indictment and guilty plea demonstrate that those who engage in unprovoked and illegal attacks on civilians, whether during times of conflict or times of peace, will be held accountable.”
In a dramatic twist, in addition to the manslaughter charges, the men are being charged under an antidrug law that provides for a thirty-year mandatory minimum sentence for using machine guns in the commission of violent crimes. Count thirty-five of the indictment charges that the men “knowingly used and discharged firearms,” including “an SR-25 sniper rifle; machine guns (M-4 assault rifles and M-240 machine guns); and destructive devices (M-203 grenade launchers and grenades), during and in relation to a crime of violence for which each of them may be prosecuted in a court of the United States.”
Jeremy Ridgeway, the Blackwater operative who pleaded guilty on Friday, has agreed to testify against the other five men, according to ABC News. Citing documents filed in his plea agreement, ABC reports that Ridgeway “acknowledged the government evidence would prove he and the others ‘opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians.’ He agreed none of the civilians ‘was an insurgent, and many were shot while inside of civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee.’ Ridgeway also admitted one victim was shot in his chest ‘while standing in the street with his hands up.'”
Federal prosecutors made clear that Blackwater itself will not face any charges in the case. As in most of the crimes committed against Iraqis by US military and private forces, this incident is being portrayed as the work of a few bad apples and not the bloody end-product of an out-of-control occupation. “We honor the brave service of the many US contractors who are employed to support the mission of our armed forces in extremely difficult circumstances,” said Jeff Taylor, US Attorney for the District of Columbia. “Today, we honor that service by holding accountable the very few individuals who abused that employment by committing some very serious crimes against dozens of innocent civilians.” Blackwater owner Erik Prince and other company executives face no consequences for the actions of their men, nor does the State Department, which deployed the company’s men in Iraq.