The real story of Baghdad's Bloody Sunday
Six days ago, at least 28 civilians died in a shooting incident
involving the US security company Blackwater. But what actually
happened? Kim Sengupta reports from the scene of the massacre
By Kim Sengupta
Independent" -- - The eruption of gunfire was
sudden and ferocious, round after round mowing down terrified
men women and children, slamming into cars as they collided and
overturned with drivers frantically trying to escape. Some
vehicles were set alight by exploding petrol tanks. A mother and
her infant child died in one of them, trapped in the flames.
The shooting on Sunday, by the guards of the American private
security company Blackwater, has sparked one of the most bitter
and public disputes between the Iraqi government and its
American patrons, and brings into sharp focus the often violent
conduct of the Western private armies operating in Iraq since
the 2003 invasion, immune from scrutiny or prosecution.
Blackwater's security men are accused of going on an unprovoked
killing spree. Hassan Jabar Salman, a lawyer, was shot four
times in the back, his car riddled with eight more bullets, as
he attempted to get away from their convoy. Yesterday, sitting
swathed in bandages at Baghdad's Yarmukh Hospital, he recalled
scenes of horror. "I saw women and children jump out of their
cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot," said
Mr Salman. "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. People were
At the end of the prolonged hail of bullets Nisoor Square was a
scene of carnage with bodies strewn around smouldering wreckage.
Ambulances trying to pick up the wounded found their path
blocked by crowds fleeing the gunfire.
Yesterday, the death toll from the incident, according to Iraqi
authorities, stood at 28. And it could rise higher, say doctors,
as some of the injured, hit by high-velocity bullets at close
quarter, are unlikely to survive.
With public anger among Iraqis showing no sign of abating, the
US administration has suspended all land movement by officials
outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The Iraqi government has revoked Blackwater's licence to operate
but it still remains employed by the US government. The
Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has, however, promised a
"transparent" inquiry into what happened.
Blackwater and the US State Department maintain that the guards
opened fire in self-defence as they reacted to a bomb blast and
then sniper fire. Amid continuing accusations and
recriminations, The Independent has tried to piece together
events on that day.
The reports we got from members of the public, Iraqi security
personnel and government officials, as well as our own research,
leads to a markedly different scenario than the American
version. There was a bomb blast. But it was too far away to pose
any danger to the Blackwater guards, and their State Department
charges. We have found no Iraqi present at the scene who saw or
heard sniper fire.
Witnesses say the first victims of the shootings were a couple
with their child, the mother and infant meeting horrific deaths,
their bodies fused together by heat after their car caught fire.
The contractors, according to this account, also shot Iraqi
soldiers and police and Blackwater then called in an attack
helicopter from its private air force which inflicted further
Blackwater disputes most of this. In a statement the company
declared that those killed were "armed insurgents and our
personnel acted lawfully and appropriately in a war zone
protecting American lives".
The day after the killings, Mirenbe Nantongo, a spokeswoman for
the US embassy, said the Blackwater team had " reacted to a car
bombing". The embassy's information officer, Johann Schmonsees,
stressed " the car bomb was in proximity to the place where
State Department personnel were meeting, and that was the reason
why Blackwater responded to the incident" .
Those on the receiving end tell another story. Mr Salman said he
had turned into Nisoor Square behind the Blackwater convoy when
the shooting began. He recalled: "There were eight foreigners in
four utility vehicles, I heard an explosion in the distance and
then the foreigners started shouting and signalling for us to go
back. I turned the car around and must have driven about a
hundred feet when they started shooting. My car was hit with 12
bullets it turned over. Four bullets hit me in the back and
another in the arm. Why they opened fire? 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."
Muhammed Hussein, whose brother was killed in the shooting,
said: "My brother was driving and we saw a black convoy ahead of
us. Then I saw my brother suddenly slump in the car. I dragged
him out of the car and saw he had been shot in the chest. I
tried to hide us both from the firing, but then I realised he
was already dead."
Jawad Karim Ali was on his way to pick up his aunt from Yarmukh
Hospital when shooting started and the windscreen exploded
cutting his face. " Then I was hit on my left shoulder by
bullets, two of them another one went past my face. Now my aunt
is out of hospital and I am sitting here. There was a big bang
further away but no shots before the security people fired, and
they just kept firing."
Baghdad's "Bloody Sunday" has become a test of sovereignty
between the powers of the Iraqi government and the US. The Iraqi
Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said: "We will not tolerate the
killing of our citizens in cold blood." The shooting was, he
said, the seventh of its kind involving Blackwater.
The company, which has its headquarters in North Carolina, is
one of the largest beneficiaries of the lucrative occupation
dividend, holding the contract to provide security for top-level
Its reputation in Iraq is particularly controversial. It was the
lynching of four of the company's employees in 2004 which led to
the bloody confrontation in Fallujah. The men's bodies were set
on fire, dragged through the streets and then hung from a
bridge. Blackwater personnel are recognisable from their
"uniform" of wraparound sunglasses and body armour over dark
coloured sweatshirts and helmets. Employees are thought to earn
about $600 (£300) per day.
Sunday's shooting happened at Mansour, once one of the most
fashionable districts of Baghdad, with roads flanked by shops
selling expensive goods, restaurants and art galleries. In the
height of the sectarian bloodletting between Shias and Sunnis
earlier this year dead bodies would be regularly strewn in the
streets. A semblance of safety has returned since, and Mansour
was held up as an example of how the US military "surge" was
cutting the violence.
We were in Mansour on Sunday when we heard the sound of a
deafening explosion just after midday. Black plumes of smoke
rose from a half-blasted National Guard (army) post near a
mosque. Five or six minutes afterwards there was the sound of
prolonged shooting towards the south.
Police Captain Ali Ibrahim, who was on duty near Nisoor Square,
said: " We heard the bomb go off, it was very loud, but it
wasn't at the square. The police were, in fact, trying to clear
the way for the contractors when they became agitated, they
opened fire. No one was shooting at them."
Asked about the witness accounts, Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi
government spokesman, confirmed: "The traffic policemen were
trying to open the road for them. It was a crowded square and
one small car did not stop, it was moving very slowly. They
started shooting randomly, there was a couple and their child
inside the car and they were hit."
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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