BAGHDAD – Iraqis seeking justice for 17 people shot dead at a Baghdad intersection responded with bitterness and outrage Friday at a U.S. judge's decision to throw out a case against a Blackwater security team accused in the killings.
The Iraqi government vowed to pursue the case, which became a source of contention between the U.S. and the Iraqi government. Many Iraqis also held up the judge's decision as proof of what they'd long believed: U.S. security contractors were above the law.
"There is no justice," said Bura Sadoun Ismael, who was wounded by two bullets and shrapnel during the shooting. "I expected the American court would side with the Blackwater security guards who committed a massacre in Nisoor Square."
What happened on Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007, raised Iraqi concerns about their sovereignty because Iraqi officials were powerless to do anything to the Blackwater employees who had immunity from local prosecution. The shootings also highlighted the degree to which the U.S. relied on private contractors during the Iraq conflict.
Blackwater had been hired by the State Department to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The guards said they were ambushed at a busy intersection in western Baghdad, but U.S. prosecutors and many Iraqis said the Blackwater guards let loose an unprovoked attack on civilians using machine guns and grenades.
"Investigations conducted by specialized Iraqi authorities confirmed unequivocally that the guards of Blackwater committed the crime of murder and broke the rules by using arms without the existence of any threat obliging them to use force," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement Friday.
He did not elaborate on what steps the government planned to take to pursue the case.
The shootings led the Iraqi government to strip the North Carolina-based company of its license to work in the country, and Blackwater replaced its management and changed its name to Xe Services.
Five guards from the company were charged in the case with manslaughter and weapons violations. The charges carried mandatory 30-year prison terms, but a federal judge Friday dismissed all the charges.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina cited repeated government missteps in the investigation, saying that prosecutors built their case on sworn statements that the guards had given with the idea that they would be immune from prosecution.
That explanation held little sway with Iraqis outraged over the case.
Dr. Haitham Ahmed's wife and son were both killed in their car during the shooting.
"The rights of our victims and the rights of the innocent people should not be wasted," he said.
Iraqis have followed the case closely and said the judge's decision demonstrated that the Americans were considered above the law.
"I was not astonished by the verdict because the trial was unreal. They are using double standards and talking about human rights, but they are the first to violate these rights. They are killing innocents deliberately," said Ahmed Jassim, a civil engineer in the southern city of Najaf.
Dozens of Iraqis have filed a separate lawsuit alleging that Blackwater employees engaged in indiscriminate killings and beatings. That civil case was not affected by Urbina's decision and is still before a Virginia court.
Mohammed al-Kinani, whose son was killed, said he had been invited once to the U.S. by the Justice Department as a witness but said he went two more times after that to follow the case.
"I will not despair," he said.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq, said he understood that people would be upset with the decision.
"Of course people are not going to like it, because they believe that these individuals conducted some violence and should be punished for it, but the bottom line is, using the rule of law, the evidence is not there," he said. "I worry about it because clearly there were innocent people killed in this attack."
Of all the private security companies that mushroomed in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, Blackwater was the most well-known and vilified.
Their employees were at the center of what is considered one of the key moments of the war. A vehicle with four Blackwater employees driving through the western city of Fallujah, a center of the Sunni insurgency, was hit by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in March 2004. Their charred, mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates river.
The bloody incident was one of the key reasons the U.S. military attacked Fallujah in April 2004.
Another Blackwater guard, Andrew Moonen, was accused by the family of a guard for an Iraqi vice president of shooting and killing the guard without provocation on Christmas Eve of 2006 after Moonen got drunk at a party in the Green Zone and then got lost. Moonen's lawyer has described the incident as self-defense.
An October 2007 report by a House of Representatives committee called Blackwater an out-of-control outfit indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties. Blackwater chairman Erik Prince told the committee that the company acted appropriately at all times.
Were the incident to happen again today, the legal outcome might be much different. The U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect Jan. 1, 2009, lifted the immunity that foreign contractors had in Iraq. A British security contractor accused of shooting two colleagues is currently being held in Iraq and could be the first Westerner to face an Iraqi court since the immunity was lifted.