Making a Killing
It's being described as "Baghdad's bloody Sunday." On September 16 a heavily armed State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater USA was whizzing down the wrong side of the road near Nisour Square in the congested Mansour neighborhood in the Iraqi capital. Iraqi police scrambled to block off traffic to allow the convoy to pass. In the chaos, an Iraqi vehicle entered the square, reportedly failing to heed a policeman's warning fast enough. The Blackwater operatives, protecting their American principal, a senior State Department official, opened fire on the vehicle, killing the driver. According to witnesses, Blackwater troops then launched some sort of grenade at the car, setting it ablaze. But inside the vehicle was not a small sect from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or the Mahdi Army, the "armed insurgents" Blackwater described killing in its official statement on the incident. It was a young Iraqi family--man, woman and infant--whose crime appeared to be panicking in a chaotic traffic situation. Witnesses say the bodies of the mother and child were melded together by the flames that had engulfed their vehicle.
Gunfire rang out in Nisour Square as people fled for their lives. Witnesses described a horrifying scene of indiscriminate shooting by the Blackwater guards. In all, as many as twenty-eight Iraqis may have been killed, and doctors say the toll could climb, as some victims remain in critical condition. A company spokesperson said Blackwater's forces "acted lawfully and appropriately" and "heroically defended American lives in a war zone." Blackwater's version of events is hotly disputed, not only by the Iraqi government, which says it has video to prove the shooting was unprovoked, but also by survivors of the attack. "I saw women and children jump out of their cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot," said Iraqi lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman, who was shot four times in the back during the incident. "But still the firing kept coming and many of them were killed. I saw a boy of about 10 leaping in fear from a minibus--he was shot in the head. His mother was crying out for him. She jumped out after him, and she was killed."
Salman says he was driving behind the Blackwater convoy when it stopped. Witnesses say some sort of explosion had gone off in the distance, too far away to have been perceived as a threat. He said Blackwater guards ordered him to turn his vehicle around and leave the scene. Shortly after, the shooting began. "Why had they opened fire?" he asked. "I do not know. No one--I repeat no one--had fired at them. The foreigners had asked us to go back, and I was going back in my car, so there was no reason for them to shoot." In all, he says, his car was hit twelve times, including the four bullets that pierced his back.
While the shooting in Nisour Square has put the issue of private forces in Iraq--and Blackwater's name specifically--on the front pages of newspapers around the globe, this is hardly the first deadly incident involving these forces. What is new is that the Iraqi government responded powerfully. Within twenty-four hours of the shooting, Iraq's Interior Ministry announced that it was expelling Blackwater from the country; Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the firm's conduct "criminal."
The next day, the State Department ordered all non-US military officials to remain inside the Green Zone, and diplomatic convoys were halted. The Iraqi government, acting as though it was in control of the country, announced that it intended to prosecute the Blackwater men responsible for the killings. "We will not allow Iraqis to be killed in cold blood," Maliki said. "There is a sense of tension and anger among all Iraqis, including the government, over this crime."
But getting rid of Blackwater would not prove to be so easy. Four days after being grounded, Blackwater was back on Iraqi streets. After all, Blackwater is not just any security company in Iraq; it is the leading mercenary company of the US occupation. It first took on this role in the summer of 2003, after receiving a $27 million no-bid contract to provide security for Ambassador Paul Bremer, the original head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Since then, it has kept every subsequent US Ambassador, from John Negroponte to Ryan Crocker, alive. It protects Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits the country, as well as Congressional delegations. Since its original Iraq contract, Blackwater has won more than $700 million in "diplomatic security" contracts through the State Department alone.
The company's domestic political clout has been key to its success. It is owned by Erik Prince, a reclusive right-wing evangelical Christian who has served as a major bankroller of the campaigns of George W. Bush and his allies. Among the company's senior executives are former CIA official J. Cofer Black, who once oversaw the extraordinary-rendition program and led the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden (and who currently serves as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's top counterterrorism adviser), and Joseph Schmitz, the Pentagon Inspector General under Donald Rumsfeld.
So embedded is Blackwater in the US apparatus in Iraq that the incident in Nisour Square has sparked a crisis for the occupation that is both practical and political. Now that Blackwater's name is known (and hated) throughout Iraq, the bodyguards themselves are likely to become targets of resistance attacks, perhaps even more so than the officials they are tasked with keeping alive. This will make their work much more difficult. But beyond such security issues are more substantive political ones, as Blackwater's continued presence on Iraqi streets days after Maliki called for its expulsion serves as a potent symbol of the utter lack of Iraqi sovereignty.