Two years ago on September 16, 2007, on a steamy hot Baghdad day with temperatures reaching 100 degrees, a heavily armed Blackwater convoy entered a congested intersection at Nisour Square in the Mansour district of the Iraqi capital. The once-upscale section of Baghdad was still lined with boutiques, cafes and art galleries dating back to better days. The ominous caravan consisted of four large armored vehicles with machine guns mounted on top.
As the Blackwater convoy was entering the square that day, a young Iraqi medical student named Ahmed Hathem Al-Rubaie was driving his mother, Mahasin, in the family’s white sedan. As fate would have it, they found themselves stuck near Nisour Square. The family were devout Muslims and were fasting in observance of the holy month of Ramadan.
Ali Khalaf Salman, an Iraqi traffic cop on duty in Nisour Square that day, remembers vividly when the Blackwater convoy entered the intersection, spurring him and his colleagues to scramble to stop traffic. But as the Mambas entered the square, the convoy suddenly made a surprise U-turn and proceeded to drive the wrong way on a one-way street. As Khalaf watched, the convoy came to an abrupt halt. He says a large white man with a mustache, positioned atop the third vehicle in the Blackwater convoy, began to fire his weapon “randomly.”
Khalaf looked in the direction of the shots, on Yarmouk Road, and heard a woman screaming, “My son! My son!” The police officer sprinted toward the voice and found a middle-aged woman inside of a vehicle holding a 20-year-old man covered in blood, who had been shot in the forehead. “I tried to help the young man, but his mother was holding him so tight,” Khalaf recalled. Another Iraqi policeman, Sarhan Thiab, also ran to the car. “We tried to help him,” Thiab said. “I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out: ‘My son, my son. Help me, help me.”’
Officer Khalaf recalled looking toward the Blackwater shooters. “I raised my left arm high in the air to try to signal to the convoy to stop the shooting.” He says he thought the men would cease fire, given that he was a clearly identified police officer. The young man’s body was still in the driver’s seat of the automatic vehicle and, as Khalaf and Thiab stood there, it began to roll forward, perhaps as a result of the dead man’s foot remaining on the accelerator. Blackwater guards later said they initially opened fire on the vehicle because it was speeding and would not stop, a claim hotly disputed by scores of witnesses. Aerial photos of the scene later showed that the car had not even entered the traffic circle when it was fired upon by Blackwater, while the New York Times reported, “The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle,” meaning Blackwater had already shot the man. “I tried to use hand signals to make the Blackwater people understand that the car was moving on its own and we were trying to stop it. We were trying to get the woman out but had to run for cover,” Thiab said.
“Don’t shoot, please,” Khalaf recalled yelling. But as he stood with his hand raised, Khalaf says a gunman from the fourth Blackwater vehicle opened fire on the mother gripping her son and shot her dead before Khalaf’s and Thiabs’ eyes. “I saw parts of the woman’s head flying in front of me, blow up,” Thiab said. “They immediately opened heavy fire at us.” Within moments, so many shots had been fired at the car from “big machine guns” that Khalaf says it exploded, engulfing the bodies inside in flames, melting their flesh into one. “Each of their four vehicles opened heavy fire in all directions, they shot and killed everyone in cars facing them and people standing on the street,” Thiab recalled. “When it was over we were looking around and about fifteen cars had been destroyed, the bodies of the killed were strewn on the pavements and road.” When later asked by US investigators why he never fired at the Blackwater men, Khalaf told them, “I am not authorized to shoot, and my job is to look after the traffic.”