Blackwater Baghdad shootings

Blackwater Baghdad shootings

Coordinates: 33°18′08″N 44°21′23″E / 33.30222°N 44.35639°E / 33.30222; 44.35639 On September 16, 2007, Blackwater military contractors allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad.[1] The fatalities occurred while a Blackwater Personal Security Detail (PSD) was clearing the way for a convoy of US State Department vehicles en route to a meeting in western Baghdad with United States Agency for International Development officials. On December 31, 2009, a U.S. district judge dismissed all the manslaughter charges because the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony given in exchange for immunity.[2]

The next day, Blackwater Worldwide's license to operate in Iraq was temporarily revoked.[3] The US State Department has said that "innocent life was lost"[4] while US military reports indicate Blackwater's guards opened fire without provocation and may have used excessive force.[5] The Iraqi government vowed to punish Blackwater after an Iraqi inquiry found that the guards were "not touched even by a stone" when they opened fire on the civilians.[6] The incident sparked at least five investigations, including a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe that found almost all of the shootings "were unjustified and violated deadly-force rules in effect for security contractors in Iraq."[7][8] All charges against the contractors were dismissed.

On April 1, 2011, the Associated Press reported that the FBI scientists were unable to match bullets from the square to guns carried by the Blackwater guards and investigators found foreign cartridge cases not used by U.S. or Blackwater personnel. Shootings in the square were not uncommon, making it unclear whether shells were from the shooting in question or from other incidents.[9]



An SR-25 semi-automatic rifle identical to the weapon used by at least one Blackwater USA operator in the incident.[10]

An Iraqi investigation into the events stated that as the convoy drew close to Nisoor Square, a distant Kia sedan with a woman and her grown son in it was driving slowly on the wrong side of the road, and ignored a police officer's whistle to clear a path for the convoy.[11] The report said the security team fired warning shots and then lethal fire at the Kia. After this, the report said that stun grenades were fired off by contractors to clear the scene. The report continues by saying Iraqi police and Iraqi Army soldiers, mistaking the stun grenades for fragmentation grenades, opened fire at the Blackwater team, to which the Blackwater team responded.[12][13] A Reuters report showed some of the vehicles which were left at the scene. According to Iraqi investigators, a Blackwater helicopter present during the attack fired several times from the air. Blackwater has denied these charges.[14][15]

Iraqi Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf has stated the US firm "opened fire randomly at citizens." Among those killed was one Iraqi policeman; no US State Department officials were wounded or killed.[16]

Blackwater has stated that a car bomb detonated close to the meeting point[17] and that their security team then evacuated the State Department officials. Blackwater says the convoy passed through Nisour Square, between the Sunni-controlled al-Mansour and al-Yarmukh neighborhoods, and was attacked. According to Blackwater vice-president Marty Strong, it was hit with "a large explosive device" and "repeated small arms fire" which disabled a vehicle.[17] Several sources have stated that the explosion was caused by a mortar round, though this is not reflected in the Department of State incident report.[18][19] Blackwater has denied Iraqi allegations that one of their helicopters fired from the air during the incident.[14][15]

A State Department report states that eight to ten attackers opened fire "from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi police uniforms."[18] The report says that as the convoy tried to leave, its route was blocked by insurgents armed with machine guns at 12:08 pm. According to another US government report, "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area and a second convoy en route to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel."[19] A US Army convoy, possibly the same one delayed by Iraqi forces, arrived approximately a half hour later, backed by air cover, to escort the convoy back to the Green Zone.[17]

On September 27, the New York Times reported that during the chaotic incident at Nisour Square, one member of the Blackwater security team continued to fire on civilians, despite urgent cease-fire calls from colleagues. It is unclear whether the team-member mistook the civilians for insurgents. The incident was resolved only after another Blackwater contractor pointed his weapon at the man still firing and ordered him to stop.[20]


In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Blackwater's rights to conduct work in Iraq were temporarily suspended.[21] Several Iraqi and American investigations have or are being conducted in to the incident.[22][23] The incident has caused Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to call on the U.S. government to end its contract with Blackwater USA,[24] and for the Iraqi government to push for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable."[25] The US House passed a bill that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts.[26] The U.S. Senate will reportedly consider similar legislation.[26]

License to operate in Iraq

On September 18, 2007, Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, said Blackwater is "not allowed to operate anywhere in the Republic of Iraq." Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh stated that the ban would last for the duration of the investigation, and that it would not be permanent.[17] The banning was described by P. W. Singer, an expert on the private military industry, as "inevitable", given the US governments' reliance on and lack of oversight of the private military industry in Iraq.[27]

The Private Security Company Association of Iraq, in a document last updated on July 3, 2007, listed Blackwater as not having a license to operate in Iraq despite their attempts to apply for one.[28] Blackwater's operations on behalf of the US Department of State and the CIA may be unaffected by this claimed license revocation.[29] Also, it is not clear whether the license revocation is permanent.[21]

On September 19, the United States temporarily suspended all land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone as a result of public outrage over the killing of civilians by Blackwater employees. The order confines most Americans to a 3.5 square miles (9.1 km2) area in the center of the city so that they are unable to visit other areas without travelling in a helicopter. The order did not say when the suspension would expire.[30] On September 21, CNN reported that Blackwater would resume normal operations the following day.[22]

Blackwater, which had been operating in Iraq without an Iraqi government license, applied for one for the first time, but the request was denied by Iraqi officials in January 2009. The Iraqi government announced that Blackwater must leave Iraq as soon as a joint Iraqi-US committee finishes drafting the new guidelines on private contractors under the current Iraqi-US security agreement. Umm Tahsin, widow of one of the men killed by Blackwater employees in the Nisour Square shooting, said of the denial, "Those people are a group of criminals. What they did was a massacre. Pushing them out is the best solution. They destroyed our family."[31] On January 31, 2009 the US State Department notified Blackwater that the agency would not renew its security contract with the company.[32]


The U.S. State Department said it planned to investigate what it called a "terrible incident."[33] According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised a "fair and transparent" investigation into the incident. The State Department announced an American-Iraqi joint commission to investigate both the shooting and the use of private security contractors as a broader issue. The committee was co-chaired by Abd al Qadir, the Iraqi Minister of Defense and Patricia A. Butenis, the Chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.[22]

Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which held hearings on the use of Private Security Contractors in February 2007 said his committee would hold hearings "to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to U.S. security interests."[23] Waxman stated that "the controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors."[17]

On October 4, 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it would be taking the lead in the investigation of the shooting incident.[34]


On September 22, 2007 Iraqi investigators announced that they have a videotape that shows Blackwater USA contractors opening fire against civilians without provocation. Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said Iraqi authorities had completed their investigation into the shooting and concluded that Blackwater guards were responsible for the deaths. "The murder of citizens in cold blood in al-Nissour area by the Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against the civilians just like any other terrorist operations", a preliminary report of the findings says.[35] Khalaf said the report had been "sent to the judiciary." Under Iraqi law, an investigating judge decides whether there is enough evidence for a trial. Khalaf also said the ministry was looking into six other fatal shootings involving Blackwater.[36] US Military reports appear to corroborate the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault in the incident.[5]

On October 2, 2007 the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report stating that Blackwater USA guards have used deadly force weekly in Iraq and have inflicted "significant casualties and property damage." The report found that the guards fired their weapons an average of 1.4 times a week. The report further said that Blackwater reports that its forces fired first in over 80 percent of the cases.[37]

On October 4, 2007 U.S. military reports indicated Blackwater's guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force. "It was obviously excessive", a U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP (Iraqi police) or any of the local security forces fired back at them", the official continued. The Blackwater guards appeared to have fired grenade launchers in addition to machine guns, according to the report.[5]

On October 13, 2007, the FBI reported it had found at least 14 of the 17 Iraqis killed to have been without cause.[11] The three possibly justifiable killings involved the two passengers of a white Kia sedan which rolled toward the convoy, as well as an unidentified Iraqi nearby.[11] Much of the blame for the unjustified casualties has been put on "turret gunner no. 3", Paul Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas, who fired a large number of rounds during the event.[11] Anne Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, responded to the findings saying Blackwater "supports the stringent accountability of the industry. If it is determined that one person was complicit in the wrongdoing, we would support accountability in that. The key people in this have not spoken with investigators."[38][39][40]

On January 19, 2008, the New York Times reported that the contractor responsible for many of the deaths in the engagement, previously known as "turret gunner no. 3", is named Paul Slough.[41] He enlisted in 1999, and as part of the 3rd Infantry Division, he served in Bosnia.[41] He received an honorable discharge in 2002 and then enlisted in the Texas National Guard.[41] He performed one tour in Iraq before being hired as a Personal Security Specialist in Iraq.[41] Nothing in the New York Times report suggested a history of irresponsible or "cowboy-like" decisions.[41]

On April 1, 2009, the Associated Press reported that forensic tests on bullets were inconclusive. None of the bullets the lab had available could be matched to the rifles used by the guards.[42]

On April 1, 2011, the Associated Press reported on Erik Prince's seven-hour testimony on what allegedly transpired. Prince strongly disputes how federal authorities handled the investigation as well as the claims that U.S. or Blackwater personnel were to blame for the shootings. During a seven-hour testimony, Prince noted that, "It seems the ballistics analysis was done to prove the guilt of the Americans, not to just try to identify what happened there." Erik Prince said during the seven-hour testimony that he didn't believe the FBI fully investigated the sources of all the used bullets in Nisoor Square, arguing that it would have been helpful for the defense to have a complete ballistics report. FBI scientists couldn't match bullets from the square to guns carried by the Blackwater guards and FBI investigators found foreign cartridge cases not used by U.S. or Blackwater personnel. As shootings in the square were not uncommon, it is unclear whether shells were from the shooting in question or from other incidents.[9]

UN October 2007 report

In October 2007 the United Nations released a two year study that stated, that although hired as "security guards", private contractors were performing military duties. The report found that the use of contractors such as Blackwater was a "new form of mercenary activity" and illegal under International law; however the United States is not a signatory to the 1989 UN Mercenary Convention banning the use of mercenaries.[43] Nor is the US a signatory to the 1977 additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions in which also under Article 47 specifies that mercenaries are civilians who "take a direct part in the hostilities" (no distinction is made under the Protocol between defensive and offensive actions, but the U.S. does make such a distinction, considering defensive actions by security guards not to be combat)[44] and are "motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain."[45]

Iraqi reaction

Unlike many deaths blamed on foreign contractors, this shooting took place in downtown Baghdad, an area with dozens of witnesses.[citation needed] "We see the security firms ... doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them", Baghdad resident Halim Mashkoor told AP Television News. He asked, "if such a thing happened in America or Britain, would the American president or American citizens accept it?"[30] Hasan Jaber Salman, one of the wounded and an Iraqi lawyer, said that "no one did anything to provoke Blackwater" and that "as we turned back they opened fire at all cars from behind"[46] An Iraqi police officer who was directing traffic at the scene said Blackwater guards "became the terrorists" when they opened fire on civilians unprovoked, while a businessman said he wasn't seeking compensation but only "the truth" from the guards.[47] After a group of Iraqi ministers backed the Iraqi Interior Ministry's decision to shut down Blackwater USA's operations in Iraq,[17] Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on the U.S. government to end its contract with Blackwater[24] and called on Blackwater to pay the families $8 million in compensation.[48]

Reaction from the Arab World

A U.S. judge's decision to dismiss all charges against Blackwater on January 1, 2010, sparked outrage in the Arab world.[49] Algerian newspaper Le Quotidien d'Oran said the ruling was one of "stunning violence" and compared the American security firm to terrorists.[50]

Punishment of contractors

On September 24, 2007, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior announced it would file criminal charges against the Blackwater staff involved in the shooting, although it is unclear how some of them will be brought to trial.[22] "The murder of citizens in cold blood in al-Nissour area by the Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against the civilians just like any other terrorist operations", a preliminary report of the findings says.[35] A senior aide to al-Maliki said that three of the Blackwater guards were Iraqis and could be subject to prosecution. The aide also said that the Iraqi government was pushing for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable."[25]

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before Congress that the Pentagon has sufficient legal authority to control its contractors, but that commanders lack sufficient "means and resources" to exercise adequate oversight.[3]

On October 4, 2007 the US House passed a bill that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act[51] and thus prosecution by U.S. courts.[26] Senate Democratic leaders have said they plan to send similar legislation as soon as possible.[26]

On December 31, 2009, a U.S. district judge dismissed all the manslaughter charges because the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony given in exchange for immunity.[2]

Further court action

On October 11, 2007, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit against Blackwater USA under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of an injured Iraqi and the families of three of the seventeen Iraqis who were killed by Blackwater employees during a September 16, 2007 shooting incident.[48]

The Justice Department was originally not expected to bring criminal charges against the corporation, however in December 2008, the Justice Department announced they were charging five of the Blackwater employees, and ordered them to surrender themselves to the FBI. Charged with manslaughter are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tennessee, and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.[52] A sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy Ridgeway of California, struck a deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting.[52]

The trial was set for early 2010,[53] but the charges were dismissed by District Judge Ricardo Urbina. The disputed evidence concerned statements the guards were compelled to give to state department investigators: As these statements would have been self-incriminating, they were therefore protected under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. "Prosecutors should therefore have built their case against the men without them", the BBC report explained.[54]

On 22 April 2011 a federal appeals-court panel revived the Justice Department's prosecution of the former Blackwater Worldwide guards accused.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found "systemic" errors in a district court's 2009 decision to dismiss charges that five former Blackwater guards killed the civilians by recklessly shooting in a Baghdad traffic circle.

The district court found that the government mishandled the case by using tainted statements the guards provided in the initial investigation.[55]

See also


  1. ^ Johnston, David; John M. Broder (2007-11-14). "F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  2. ^ a b Pelton, Robert Young. "An American Commando in Exile". Men's Journal. Men's Journal. Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Pentagon Dispatches Investigators to Iraq to Probe Private Security Contractors
  4. ^ U.S., Iraq to probe firefight involving Blackwater
  5. ^ a b c Blackwater faulted by U.S. military: report
  6. ^ Iraq determined to rein in private security guards
  7. ^ Johnston, David; Broder, John M. (2007-11-14). "F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  8. ^ FBI Opens Probe Into Blackwater
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^ 5 Witnesses Insist Iraqis Didn't Fire On Guards: State Dept. to Study System for Security By Sudarsan Raghavan and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post September 29, 2007; Page A01
  11. ^ a b c d Johnston, David; Broder, John M. (2007-11-14). "F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  12. ^ Tavernise, Sabrina; James Glanz (2007-09-19). "Iraqi Report Says Blackwater Guards Fired First". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  13. ^ A New York Times graphic of the events that took place, according to the Iraqi investigation.
  14. ^ a b Glanz, James; Alissa Rubin (2007-10-03). "From Errand to Fatal Shot to Hail of Fire to 17 Deaths". The New York Times: p. 2. Retrieved 2007-10-08. 
  15. ^ a b Partlow, Joshua (2007-09-17). "State Dept. Convoy Attacked in Baghdad, Sparking a Shootout". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  16. ^ "US security firm Blackwater banned from Iraq". RTÉ News. 2007-09-17. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f "U.S. suspends diplomatic convoys throughout Iraq". CNN. 2007-09-18. Archived from the original on 2007-09-18. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  18. ^ a b Hanner, Darren (2007-09-16). "SAF Attack on COM Team" (PDF). U.S. Embassy Baghdad. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  19. ^ a b Zagorin, Adam; Brian Bennett (2007-09-17). "Iraq Limits Blackwater's Operations". TIME.,8599,1662586,00.html. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  20. ^ Glanz, James; Sabrina Tavernise (2007-09-28). "Blackwater Shooting Scene Was Chaotic". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-08. 
  21. ^ a b Will Iraq Kick Out Blackwater? by Adam Zagorin & Brian Bennett, Time, September 17, 2007: "A spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry has told reporters it has cancelled Blackwater's license and will launch an investigation into whether excessive force was used in the incident.
  22. ^ a b c d Iraq: Blackwater staff to face charges
  23. ^ a b Blackwater Denies Any Wrongdoing in Shooting Incident
  24. ^ a b Iraqi leader urges U.S. to cancel Blackwater contract
  25. ^ a b Iraqi Investigators say Videotape Shows Blackwater Guards Fired Without Aggravation
  26. ^ a b c d House Passes Bill That Would Hike Penalties for U.S. Security Contractors in Iraq
  27. ^ Blackwater Ban "Inevitable" by Noah Shachtman, Wired Blog, September 17, 2007.
  28. ^ Private Security Company Association of Iraq, list retrieved, September 17, 2007.
  29. ^ Blackwater: Banned in Iraq? (Updated), Wired Blog, Sharon Weinberger.
  30. ^ a b U.S. Bans Travel of Officials Outside of Green Zone
  31. ^ Londono, Ernesto and Qais Mizher, "Iraq To Deny New License To Blackwater Security Firm", Washington Post, January 29, 2009, p. 12.
  32. ^ New York Times, "No Pact for Blackwater", January 31, 2009, p. 12.
  33. ^ Blackwater security firm banned from Iraq
  34. ^ "FBI takes lead in probe over Blackwater crisis". AFP. 2007-10-04. Retrieved 2007-10-04. 
  35. ^ a b Blackwater Case Will Go to Iraqi Criminal Courts
  36. ^ Iraqi official says video shows Blackwater guards firing on civilians
  37. ^ Blackwater most often shoots first, congressional report says
  38. ^ Report: Blackwater Killings Unjustified
  39. ^
  40. ^ Nizza, Mike (2007-11-14). "The Blackwater Gunner's Account". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  41. ^ a b c d e Thompson, Ginger (2008-01-19). "From Texas to Iraq, and Center of Blackwater Case". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  42. ^ Apuzzo, Matt, No forensic match for ammo in Blackwater shooting, Associated Press, 1 April 2009
  43. ^ Higgins Alexander G.US rejects UN mercenary report USA Today, October 17, 2007 (syndicated article by Associated Press)
  44. ^ Higgins Alexander G.US rejects UN mercenary report USA Today, October 17, 2007 (syndicated article by Associated Press) "A spokesman for the U.S. Mission to U.N. offices in Geneva released a statement Wednesday 'The security guards working for U.S. government contractors in Iraq and elsewhere protect clearly defined United States government areas, and their work is defensive in nature'"
  45. ^ Milliard, Todd S.; Overcoming post-colonial myopia: A call to recognize and regulate private military companies(PDF), in Military Law Review Vol 173, June 2003. At the time of publication Major Milliard was a Judge Advocate in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, U.S. Army. pp. 35–37
  46. ^ Wounded Iraqis: 'No one did anything' to provoke Blackwater
  47. ^ Blackwater incident witness: 'It was hell'
  48. ^ a b "Family Members of Slain Iraqis Sue Blackwater USA for Deadly Baghdad Shooting." Democracy Now!. 2007-10-11. Retrieved on 2007-10-11
  49. ^ Kayhan, Islamic Republic of Iran "Blackwater Verdict a U.S. 'Snub' of Iraqi Leader Nouri al-Maliki"
  50. ^ Le Quotidien d'Oran, Algeria "Blackwater 'No Better Than al-Qaeda'"
  51. ^ "White House: Contractor bill would have 'intolerable' effects". CNN. 2007-10-03. Archived from the original on 2010-01-10. 
  52. ^ a b Jordan, Lara Jakes; Apuzzo, Matt (8 December 2008). "5 Blackwater guards face manslaughter charges". Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved 9 December 2008. 
  53. ^ Vicini, James (2009-01-06). "US judge sets trial in 2010 for Blackwater guards". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-10-19. 
  54. ^ "US judge dismisses charges in Blackwater Iraq killings". BBC News website. 31 12 09. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  55. ^ Perez, Evan (2011-04-22). "Appeals Court Revives Blackwater Case". The Wall Street Journal. 

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