Five Witnesses Say Contractor Fired On Iraqi Civilians Without Provocation

( LatWp ) - Five eyewitnesses to a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad involving the private security firm Blackwater USA insisted that company guards fired without provocation, forcing civilians and Iraqi police to run for cover, and that the Iraqi officers did not return fire.

The eyewitnesses and a senior Iraqi police official close to an investigation of the incident contradicted initial accounts provided by the company and the State Department, which employs Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats. At least 11 Iraqis died in the shootings, which have focused attention on the actions of largely unregulated security companies operating in Iraq.

"The Iraqi security forces had the right to shoot at them when they saw the (Blackwater) convoy shooting at the people, but they did not shoot at the convoy," said Ahmed Ali Jassim, 19, a maintenance worker who saw the shooting. "When they see Iraqis getting shot like that, their blood would be boiling. But no one crossed the limits."

The latest eyewitness accounts emerged as the State Department announced the creation of a high-level panel to assess whether the appropriate rules are in place for the three private firms that protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials, whether the companies - including the largest, Blackwater - are following those rules, and whether the system should be altered or scrapped altogether.

Named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the panel travels to Baghdad on Saturday to begin a comprehensive review of the State Department's multibillion-dollar private security operation in Iraq, according to Patrick Kennedy, the department's senior management official and head of the panel. The inquiry would remain separate from probes into the Sept. 16 incident, including a joint Iraq-U.S. committee composed of U.S. military and State Department personnel and Iraqi officials.

An ABC News report Friday quoted what it said were sworn statements from Blackwater employees, four of whom said they fired on a white sedan that failed to slow down despite hand and arm signals and water bottles they threw as it approached their convoy.

"I turned and engaged the car with approximately 20 to 30 rounds from my M4 rifle. After I no longer felt the threat to my life, I turned back to cover my sector," wrote one guard, according to ABC.

The guards also reported taking fire from gunmen dressed as civilians and Iraqi police officers from a tree line, a red bus and a dirt mound. One guard reported firing on a man who exited another white sedan with what the guard believed was a detonating device.

"Fearing for my life and the lives of my team members, I fired several well aimed rounds center mass at the threat," he wrote, according to ABC.

Another guard wrote that he fired in response to shots fired from Iraqis dressed as civilians. "I fired one shot from my SR-25 at the closest threat," wrote the guard, referring to a semiautomatic sniper rifle. "He went down and did not fire anymore."

The ABC report showed a photo of what Blackwater said was an armored vehicle that had been hit by at least five rounds during the incident.

The report also showed the fiery images of what Blackwater guards said was a car bomb attack before the incident. The car bomb detonated outside a financial compound where a U.S. official under Blackwater's protection was attending a meeting. The compound is about a mile from the site of the shootings, which did not occur until nearly 30 minutes later.

The eyewitnesses - three traffic policemen and two maintenance workers who were interviewed separately - offered a dramatically different account of the events in Nisoor Square.

Shortly after noon, traffic police officer Sarhan Thiab said he saw two Blackwater convoys, minutes apart, come through the traffic circle. Following procedure, he and other traffic officers ordered cars to stop entering the circle to allow the convoys to pass.

Fifteen minutes later, a third Blackwater convoy of four gray REVA armored vehicles arrived. Unlike the two previous convoys, this one swerved left and rolled into the circle against the flow of traffic, the eyewitnesses said. Such a move made it more difficult for the traffic policemen to slow down vehicles that were driving directly into the convoy.

The Blackwater guards threw water bottles in the circle to halt traffic, Thiab said. He and another officer, Ali Khalaf, walked into two intersections to stop traffic heading toward the convoy, which had stopped in a semicircle .

Suddenly, guards fired on a white sedan that did not slow down quickly enough, the witnesses said. The car kept moving forward, but not in a threatening way, said Khalaf, who has given his account to U.S. and Iraqi investigators.

"The car went on rolling slowly. But they kept on shooting," said Khalaf, who ran for cover. Thiab and other witnesses said that they heard loud booms and that the vehicle burst into flames, killing the female passenger.

In seconds, there was shooting in all directions, eyewitnesses said. People were fleeing their cars and running for cover. Afterward, dead and wounded were found in almost every direction, police said.

Eyewitnesses also disputed the Blackwater guards' account that civilians were firing from a red bus. Hussam Abdul Rahman, 25, another traffic policeman who was near the bus, said passengers were kicking out the windows in a desperate attempt to escape the firing.

"There were many on this bus. They were hardly able to walk and they were screaming," Khalaf said.

The senior Iraqi police official also rejected Blackwater's account of being ambushed by gunmen. Nisoor Square, he said, sits in front of the National Police headquarters. There were checkpoints, Iraqi army and police, nearby in nearly every direction, making it hard for gunmen to take positions to ambush the convoy.

The police guards in the square, he added, would not shoot without orders. The square is a common route for dozens of heavily armored U.S. military and embassy convoys. Anyone planning an attack would use heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades - not guns, the official said. "To attack body-armored vehicles with bullets? No one can believe this," the police official said.

Both the State Department and the Defense Department have maintained they have no choice but to contract out security and other functions in an era of downsized government and increased international danger. "As long as the security threats continue at the level they are now, we're going to have to figure out a way" to protect civilians operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots, Kennedy said. "How that is done is the purpose of the review."

Kennedy's team includes retired NATO commander Gen. George Joulwan; J. Stapleton Roy, a former senior diplomat who is now vice chairman of Kissinger Associates; and Eric Boswell, a senior official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Defense Department this week sent its own five-man team to Iraq for a parallel review of contractor security operations.

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