The Iraqi government is under increasing pressure to aggressively pursue the prosecution of American military personnel accused of killing Iraqis.

The recent decision by Ricardo Urbina, a district judge, to dismiss charges against five security contractors accused of gunning down 17 Iraqis, including women and children, in September 2007 has re-ignited deep discord among Iraqis, and fuelled suspicions that US personnel operate in a lawless void while in Iraq.

An Iraqi investigation into the incident two years ago contradicted Blackwater claims that its contractors had fired in self-defence after coming under attack in central Baghdad. In January 2008, the Iraqi government barred Blackwater from providing security detail to US diplomatic staff in the country, citing the firm’s use of excessive force.

in depth
  Video: Iraq expresses dismay at US verdict
  Iraq to ‘appeal Blackwater verdict’
  US court dismisses Blackwater case
  Riz Khan: US military contractors

A US congressional investigation into Blackwater operations appeared to corroborate Baghdad’s accusations that the firm routinely used “excessive” and “pre-emptive” force. In November 2007, FBI investigators found that 14 of the 17 killings had been “unjustified” and violated “deadly force rules” for security contractors operating in Iraq.

However, Urbina threw out the case last week saying that US justice department prosecutors had improperly used sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity.

While the Iraqi government said it regretted the judge’s decision and vowed to appeal the ruling, ordinary Iraqis are left wondering at the apparent double standards of a legal system which could pioneer rendition, imprisonment and torture based on far less evidence, but fumble a case like this.

However, Mohammed Kinani, whose nine-year-old son Ali was killed in the shooting, told Al Jazeera that Urbina’s dismissal does not signal the end of the criminal or civil cases brought against Blackwater.

“The FBI has been investigating this case for 27 months and there are witnesses to the event as well as forensic evidence which indicate that this is not the end of the road,” he said.

‘Utter devastation’

Kinani, his sister, her three children and Kinani’s son were in a car in Nisour Square on September 14 when Blackwater guards instructed them to stop.

“A few minutes after several cars in the square stopped, they opened fire on us,” Kinani said.

“My son was hit, my sister was lightly injured, my car was hit by dozens of rounds. A man in front of me was killed and lying in a pool of his own blood and every few moments they would fire on him again … they continued pumping bullets into us.

“They utterly devastated everything in front of them. As if they were bent on revenge.”

Haitham Ahmed, whose wife and son were killed in the shooting, told the Associated Press that the way the prosecution handled the case raises doubts over whether the US justice system could deliver a fair verdict.

“If a judge … dismissed the trial, that is ridiculous and the whole thing has been but a farce,” he said.

Dahlia Wasfi, an Iraqi-American who is currently writing a book about the “illegal occupation of Iraq”, says that Iraqis have largely given up on waiting for justice “or democracy, for that matter”, from Washington.

“There are over 1.3 million dead Iraqis who deserve justice. There are over 5 million displaced Iraqis who have the right of return to a safe country who deserve justice. What the United States has to understand is that without justice, there will be no peace,” she says.

Immunity to impunity?

Blackwater security guard Nick Slatten, centre, leaves court with his attorneys [REUTERS] 

But Blackwater Worldwide, since renamed Xe Services, is not the only security contractor operating in Iraq.

Since the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003, more than 100 private security firms have set up shop in Iraq, many of their names and mandates unknown to the media.

All have been granted immunity from Iraqi prosecution under an agreement signed by Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority head, and the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim political body established after the fall of Baghdad, in 2004.

Despite the handing of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, 2004, this immunity exemption remains in effect today.

In fact, private security firms in Iraq, much like Blackwater, took over major tasks and operations, which had previously been primarily assigned to US forces. The hope at the time had been that US forces would remain in their barracks, avoid improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes, reduce the body count, and keep the US public firmly behind the war. In effect, private security firms become the de facto military presence in Iraq – outnumbering the official count of non-US military “coalition” forces.

As of November 2007, Blackwater had earned more than $485mn in government contracts.

“Iraqis are certainly aware – far more aware than Americans – that there are numerous groups, armies, and militias working under the occupation to devastate Iraqi society and terrorise them. Blackwater and its henchmen are known in Iraq; in March 2008, Iraqi doctors in Falluja named an outbreak of severe malarial infection ‘Blackwater Fever’ because it’s so lethal,” says Wasfi.

Cursory investigations

The US government has no means of monitoring who the private security contractors are, what they do or how much they are paid and, in June 2009, a US congressional Wartime Contracting Commission found that the US military had failed to provide adequate oversight of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iraqis have grown tired of the explanations repeatedly offered as justification for the killing of civilians and say US investigators have only offered cursory investigations, usually siding with the accounts of private security firms.

Amnesty International USA has also been critical of the way the US government has handled accusations of impropriety by private security contractors, saying that “the US justice department has largely failed in its obligation to prosecute US contractors for serious human rights violations, and worse, it appears to have taken steps to undermine access to justice”.

In his ruling, Judge Urbina said that lead prosecutor Ken Kohl and others “purposefully flouted the advice” of senior justice department officials who told them not to use the statements that he eventually ruled as impermissible.

Whether the prosecution’s faux pas was the result of incompetence or willful sabotage is immaterial at this point; the Blackwater case was seen as a test of future Iraq-US relations, particularly given that US combat troops are to fully withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

The case also marked the culmination of years of frustrated efforts by Iraqi civilians and politicians to hold accountable not only private contractors, but the US military as well, for excessive use of force.

Kinani says his family is still distraught about the killing of his son but that he derives strength from knowing that the Nisour Square incident not only brought Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis together but also revealed what ordinary civilians were facing under occupation.

“The killings in Nisour Square woke the Iraqi and US authorities to the horrors of what such security firms were doing in Iraq,” he said, “and motivated them to take legal action.”


By John Pilger December 30, 2009

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell described a superstate called Oceania, whose language of war inverted lies that “passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’, ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.” Barack Obama is the leader of a contemporary Oceania. In two speeches at the close of the decade, the Nobel Peace Prize winner affirmed that peace was no longer peace, but rather a permanent war that “extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan” to “disorderly regions and diffuse enemies”. He called this “global security” and invited our gratitude. To the people of Afghanistan, which America has invaded and occupied, he said wittily: “We have no interest in occupying your country.” In Oceania, truth and lies are indivisible. According to Obama, the American attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was authorised by the United Nations Security Council. There was no UN authority. He said the “the world” supported the invasion in the wake of 9/11 when, in truth, all but three of 37 countries surveyed by Gallup expressed overwhelming opposition. He said that America invaded Afghanistan “only after the Taliban refused to turn over [Osama] bin Laden”. In 2001, the Taliban tried three times to hand over bin Laden for trial, reported Pakistan’s military regime, and were ignored. Even Obama’s mystification of 9/11 as justification for his war is false. More than two months before the Twin Towers were attacked, the Pakistani foreign minister, Niaz Naik, was told by the Bush administration that an American military assault would take place by mid-October. The Taliban regime in Kabul, which the Clinton administration had secretly supported, was no longer regarded as “stable” enough to ensure America’s control over oil and gas pipelines to the Caspian Sea. It had to go. Obama’s most audacious lie is that Afghanistan today is a “safe haven” for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the West. His own national security adviser, General James Jones, said in October that there were “fewer than 100” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. According to US intelligence, 90 per cent of the Taliban are hardly Taliban at all, but “a tribal localised insurgency [who] see themselves as opposing the US because it is an occupying power”. The war is a fraud. Only the terminally gormless remain true to the Obama brand of “world peace”. Beneath the surface, however, there is serious purpose. Under the disturbing General Stanley McCrystal, who gained distinction for his assassination squads in Iraq, the occupation of one of the most impoverished countries is a model for those “disorderly regions” of the world still beyond Oceania’s reach. This is a known as COIN, or counter-insurgency network, which draws together the military, aid organisations, psychologists, anthropologists, the media and public relations hirelings. Covered in jargon about winning hearts and minds, its aim is to pit one ethnic group against another and incite civil war: Tajiks and Uzbecks against Pashtuns. The Americans did this in Iraq and destroyed a multi-ethnic society. They bribed and built walls between communities who had once inter-married, ethnically cleansing the Sunni and driving millions out of the country. The embedded media reported this as “peace”, and American academics bought by Washington and “security experts” briefed by the Pentagon appeared on the BBC to spread the good news. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the opposite was true. Something similar is planned for Afghanistan. People are to be forced into “target areas” controlled by warlords bankrolled by the Americans and the opium trade. That these warlords are infamous for their barbarism is irrelevant. “We can live with that,” a Clinton-era diplomat said of the persecution of women in a “stable” Taliban-run Afghanistan. Favoured western relief agencies, engineers and agricultural specialists will attend to the “humanitarian crisis” and so “secure” the subjugated tribal lands. That is the theory. It worked after a fashion in Yugoslavia where the ethnic-sectarian partition wiped out a once peaceful society, but it failed in Vietnam where the CIA’s “strategic hamlet program” was designed to corral and divide the southern population and so defeat the Viet Cong — the Americans’ catch-all term for the resistance, similar to “Taliban”. Behind much of this are the Israelis, who have long advised the Americans in both the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures. Ethnic-cleansing, wall-building, checkpoints, collective punishment and constant surveillance – these are claimed as Israeli innovations that have succeeded in stealing most of Palestine from its native people. And yet for all their suffering, the Palestinians have not been divided irrevocably and they endure as a nation against all odds. The most telling forerunners of the Obama Plan, which the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his strange general and his PR men prefer we forget, are those that failed in Afghanistan itself. The British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century attempted to conquer that wild country by ethnic cleansing and were seen off, though after terrible bloodshed. Imperial cemeteries are their memorials. People power, sometimes baffling, often heroic, remains the seed beneath the snow, and invaders fear it. “It was curious,” wrote Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same, everywhere, all over the world … people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same people who … were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” Links embedded in this article were provided by Information Clearing House.