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.”