Condottieri from Blackwater have been much in the news lately. Here’s a roundup of recent stories:
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Security contractors in Iraq use some over-the-top tactics and overreact at times, a top U.S. general in Iraq said Friday.
Many in Iraq have witnessed security contractors operating in a questionable fashion, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq.
“I can certainly say I’ve seen them do some tactics that I thought were over the top. But that’s something we’ve got to keep working out,” Anderson said in a briefing to Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Iraq.
His comments soon after Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wants closer oversight of Pentagon contractors in Iraq. Gates has dispatched a team there to review accountability and oversight.
Anderson did not offer specific examples of incidents he had seen.
Over the top? Let’s help the General out with some specific incidents:
BAGHDAD — On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that things were getting better, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.
A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was in the capital to drop off and pick up paperwork at the central office near busy al Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work. U.S. officials often pass through the square in heavily guarded convoys on their way to other parts of Baghdad.
As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.
Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she’d held in her arms fluttered down the street.
At least one other Iraqi was killed in the same incident.
Three days later, Blackwater guards were back in al Khilani Square, Iraqi government officials said. This time, there was no shooting, witnesses said. Instead, the Blackwater guards hurled frozen bottles of water into store windows and windshields, breaking the glass.
That’s certainly an unusual tactic. I wonder what it was supposed to accomplish?
Earlier this year:
BAGHDAD — The Blackwater incidents cited by Iraq’s Interior Ministry as reason for the security firm to be barred from operating in Iraq include the deaths of four people with ties to Iraq’s government-funded television network.
The first of those was the Feb. 2 shooting death of Suhad Shakir, a reporter with the Al Atyaf channel, as she was driving to work. She died outside the Foreign Ministry near the Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work.
Five days later, three Iraqi security guards were gunned down inside the fortified compound that houses the government-funded Iraqi Media Network, which is also known as Iraqiya.
Habib Sadr, the network’s director general, said the three guards, members of Iraq’s Facilities Protection Service, were at their post at the back of the complex. A towering blast wall was a short distance in front of them to protect the compound from Haifa Street, which is notorious for car bombings and drive-by shootings.
According to Sadr and Interior Ministry officials, the three were picked off one by one by Blackwater snipers stationed on the roof of the 10-story Justice Ministry about 220 yards away on the opposite side of the street.
“The investigation showed that they were killed in cold blood and in an aggressive and unjustified way,” Sadr said. “I believe that if this happened in any state in the United States and they killed an animal, it would be condemned by all.
“They were target practice,” Sadr said.
The most recent and most notorious incident happened on the 16th of this month:
First, here’s Blackwater’s version:
Sunday’s firefight took place about noon (4 a.m. ET) near Nusoor Square, in western Baghdad. Marty Strong, vice president of Blackwater USA, said the group’s employees were protecting an American official when they were hit by “a large explosive device, then repeated small-arms fire — and to the point where it disabled one of the vehicles, and the vehicle had to be towed out of the firefight.” (Posted 7:30 p.m.)
That isn’t the way the Iraqis saw it:
U.S. officials provided few details of the shooting, which took place as Blackwater guards were escorting unidentified State Department officials through a central Baghdad neighborhood.
Witnesses said the dead included the driver of one car and a mother and child whom he was transporting. Police said the dead included five Iraqi police officers who’d tried to help. At least nine cars were set on fire.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the incident as a “firefight,” but three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting said that only the Blackwater guards were firing.
The witnesses said the shooting began after a convoy of four gray armored vehicles drove into Al Nisour Square, a major intersection in central Baghdad. Iraqi police stopped traffic to let the convoy pass, the witnesses said. One car, however, drove up from behind the traffic to squeeze into a spot at the front. As it did, the security contractors opened fire, the witnesses said.
The young driver was killed instantly, but the shooting continued. The witnesses said they believe a grenade was launched at the car, which burst into flames, killing a young mother and baby in the back seat.
When Iraqi police approached to help the people in the burning car, the contractors started shooting at them. They also shot at a minivan and a bus, the witnesses said.
On Monday, the charred white vehicle where the man, mother and child were said to have died was pushed to the side of the road.
Police said 15 people were wounded. None of the dead and wounded was an armed insurgent, police said.
Apparently there’s a videotape of the whole incident. The number of dead is variously reported as five, nine, and eleven.
Same incident, from another witness:
Afrah Sattar, 27, was on a bus approaching the square when she saw the guards fire on the white car. She and her mother, Ghania Hussein, were headed to the Certificate of Identification Office in Baghdad to pick up proof of Sattar’s Iraqi citizenship for an upcoming trip to a religious shrine in Iran.
When she saw the gunmen turn toward the bus, Sattar looked at her mother in fear. “They’re going to shoot at us, Mama,” she said. Her mother hugged her close. Moments later, a bullet pierced her mother’s skull and another struck her shoulder, Sattar recalled.
As her mother’s body went limp, blood dripped onto Sattar’s head, still cradled in her mother’s arms.
“Mother, mother,” she called out. No answer. She hugged her mother’s body and kissed her lips and began to pray, “We belong to God and we return to God.” The bus emptied, and Sattar sat alone at the back, with her mother’s bleeding body.
“I’m lost now, I’m lost,” she said days later in her simple two-bedroom home. Ten people lived there; now there are nine.
“They are killers,” she said of the Blackwater guards. “I swear to God, not one bullet was shot at them. Why did they shoot us? My mother didn’t carry a weapon.”
Under a decree from Paul Bremer, the “contractors” can’t be prosecuted by the Iraqis for crimes committed in Iraq. As civilians they don’t fall under the UCMJ. Their actions in a foreign country don’t fall under US law.
So who are these guys?
Founded in 1996 by Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal, multimillionaire and conservative Republican donor, Blackwater began as a training facility for police and the military but began offering security services after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prince, whose father helped bankroll conservative Christian organizations such as Focus On Family and Family Research Council, has given at least $225,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates.
The Congressional Research Service said that as of May there were 987 Blackwater security contractors in Iraq. The director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq told Congress in 2006 that there were 48,000 contractors from 181 companies providing security in Iraq.