Exclusive testimony from witnesses and victims provides the most in-depth, harrowing account to date of the U.S. security firm’s deadly rampage in Iraq.
Salon.com | Dec. 14, 2007
By Jennifer Daskal
For Khalaf, a 38-year-old Iraqi, Sept. 16 started like many other sunny summer workdays. He donned his police uniform — a white shirt, navy trousers and hat — and headed to Baghdad’s busy Nissour Square. By 7 a.m. he was out in the street, directing the flow of traffic coming from the multi-laned Yarmouk access road into the square. When he spotted four large all-terrain vehicles with guns mounted on top, he did what he always did. He stopped traffic and cleared the area for what he knew, from the tell-tale sign of the two accompanying helicopters, to be a security firm’s convoy.
At first, this seemed completely normal for the totally abnormal world of Baghdad in September 2007. “Convoys are common,” explained Khalaf. But this convoy made an unexpected U-turn, drove the wrong way around the one-way square, stopped in the middle of it and started shooting. Fifteen minutes later, 17 Iraqi civilians were dead, dozens more wounded, and a white sedan that had been engulfed in flames contained two bodies charred beyond recognition.
“It was a horror movie,” said Khalaf, describing the aftermath of the now notorious Blackwater shootings.
I interviewed Khalaf on Nov. 30, in a small conference room inside a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. In one of the most in-depth collection of testimonials to date regarding Blackwater, Khalaf was among five witnesses and victims flown from Baghdad to meet with Susan Burke, William O’Neil and their team of lawyers and investigators. The team is suing Blackwater on behalf of the victims of the Sept. 16 shooting.
That lethal incident was a watershed moment that brought intense scrutiny to the problems caused by private contractors, which have effectively operated with impunity as they’ve brought violence and widespread ill will to U.S. operations in Iraq.
With experience learned from a similar lawsuit filed two years ago against U.S. contractors implicated in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Burke O’Neil is perhaps the only law firm in the nation that could so quickly gather eyewitness and victim accounts, make the right legal arguments and begin the process of holding Blackwater to account.
Sadly, this lawsuit may be the only way that the victims and their families receive remotely adequate compensation for their losses.
Khalaf recounted the events of that day to a hushed room of lawyers with laptops. He watched, he said, as the Blackwater convoy made the U-turn toward the street where he stood directing traffic. As the convoy stopped, Khalaf watched as a large man with a mustache standing atop the third car fired several shots in the air. Khalaf turned back toward the Yarmouk road to see what might have spurred the shooting and heard a woman yell, “My son! My son!” He ran three cars back to a white sedan to find a woman holding a young man slumped over and covered with blood.
The man was Ahmed, a 20-year-old medical student at the top of his class, and the woman his mother, Mohasin, a successful dermatologist and mother of three.
“I tried to help the young man, but his mother was holding him so tight,” said Khalaf. “I raised my left arm high in the air to try to signal to the convoy to stop the shooting,” he said, thinking that it would respond to such a gesture by a police officer. He described how he crouched by the car, his right arm reaching inside, his head out and left arm up in the air, signaling to the convoy, his gun secure in its holster. Then the mother was shot dead before his eyes.
The shooting then turned heavier, Khalaf said, his eyes red-brimmed and serious. He hid behind the police traffic booth, but shots came directly at him, hitting the adjacent traffic light and booth’s door, and he fled back across Yarmouk road to safety behind a hill. Along with a few hundred others, he stayed there as the chaos unfolded, watching as the helicopters circling above the street started shooting at those below.
Fifteen minutes later, the four-car convoy continued around the square and drove away. Amid the wreckage, colorful clouds billowed into the air from the convoy’s parting gift — multicolored smoke bombs.
In remarks prepared for delivery before a congressional hearing in October, Blackwater chairman Erik Prince claimed company guards “returned fire at threatening targets,” including “men with AK-47s firing on the convoy” and “approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers.” Prince’s prepared testimony also asserted that one of the vehicles had been disabled by the “enemy fire” and had to be towed. And he contended that the helicopters never fired on those below. (These remarks were never actually delivered; the Department of Justice launched an investigation the day before the hearing and asked the committee not to discuss the details of the Sept. 16 incident. Prince’s remarks were subsequently reported in the Washington Post.)
But the accounts of Khalaf and others contradict each of Prince’s assertions. Khalaf, who was there before the shooting began, said he never saw anyone fire on or approach the convoy. He watched as all four cars drove away as the 15-minute shooting spree ended, and huddled in fear as the helicopters began firing. He thought the helicopters would start spraying those who were hiding behind the hill for safety from the street-level threat.
Khalaf’s observations are backed up by official accounts, including leaked FBI findings, which concluded that at least 14 of the 17 shooting deaths were unjustified, and statements by military officials disputing Blackwater’s claim that its guards had been fired upon or under any sort of attack. The Iraq government’s own investigation found no evidence that the guards had been provoked or attacked, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s spokesperson called the shootings “deliberate murder.”