Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 January 2010
Issue No. 980
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Blackened water

Iraqis were outraged by a US court's acquittal of Blackwater mass murderers, but many doubt justice will ever be served, writes Salah Hemeid

Click to view caption
Contractors of the US private security firm Blackwater securing the site of a roadside bomb attack near the Iranian embassy in Baghdad

Last week, a US judge dropped charges against five employees of Blackwater, the notorious American security firm, accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic square, saying the defendants' constitutional rights had been violated.

The 16 September 2007 shooting, in Baghdad's busy Nisoor Square, was a stark reminder for Iraqis of US soldiers and other Americans' racism and disregard for their lives. The massacre was the culmination of more than four years of arrogance, mal-practices and brutality exercised by the mercenaries of the firm which was employed by the US State Department to protect its staff and contractors in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

The five employees, all former US army or marine soldiers, were originally charged in a US federal court with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 of attempting to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation. A sixth Blackwater employee pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempting to commit manslaughter, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The guards claimed that they shot across the crowded intersection in self- defence after hearing an explosion and gunfire. But Iraqis who survived the massacre and eyewitnesses said they indiscriminately fired at cars and bystanders. The shooting inflamed anti-American sentiment inside and strained relations between Washington and Baghdad and became a symbol for many Iraqis of America's occupation of their country.

In his ruling judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the charges against the five men, saying US justice department prosecutors improperly built their case on sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity. Urbina said the government's explanations were "contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility".

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the US Justice Department, said the department was "obviously disappointed by the decision". He said the department was "still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options" in the 90-page ruling. Neither the White House nor the State Department reacted to the dismal ruling or explained what their next step is.

The Iraqi government's response was not less pathetic. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said on Monday his government would launch lawsuits in US and Iraqi courts against Blackwater rejecting the US judge's decision to throw out charges. In a statement his office said the government "rejects the ruling issued by the American court acquitting the company of the crime of killing a number of citizens."

Despite the deadly shooting and a string of other violations the Iraqi government still allows the company to work in Iraq. The Iraqi government failed to move to ban the company sticking to its earlier promise that it would not renew Blackwater's licence to operate there when it expires in May.

The US State Department has extended a contract with a subsidiary of the firm in September to continue providing security to US diplomats in the country and made no mention of its plans after the outrage over the court decision. After the murder act, Blackwater Worldwide abandoned its tarnished brand name in a desperate attempt to shake a reputation renaming its family of two dozen businesses under the name Xe.

The firm, which raked in more than $1 billion from its contracts in Iraq, has also changed its training subsidiary Blackwater Lodge & Training Centre that conducts much of the company's overseas operations and domestic training to US Training Centre Inc. The move came as part of an ongoing re-branding effort that grew more urgent following the Baghdad massacre.

Many Iraqis now see the verdict as a washout and demand their government act vigorously to ensure that justice is served for the victims and their families and assert Iraq's sovereignty. Some Iraqi lawmakers suggested the government should now ask the Iraqi courts to release all the Iraqi defendants sentenced to death for killing Americans in Iraq, as an act of reciprocity with the US judicial system. Realising that the case could not be brought back to court or the failure of the Justice Department to build the case other Iraqis suggest the criminals face justice inside Iraq.

One thing which seems missing from the Iraqi debate is how to use the international law to support their demands for justice. The Iraqi government can and should ask the International War Crimes Tribunal to open investigation into the murder. Neither the US nor Iraq are signatories to the Rome charter of the court but being occupied by the Americans under UN Security Council's resolutions, Iraq can ask the world body to invoke the charter.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration should act immediately because its failure to ensure justice is being done will be an embarrassing cap to a politically sensitive issue and a black eye to an administration that came to deal with the fallout from Bush's botched war in Iraq. During their election campaigns Obama and State Secretary Hillary Clinton, argued that these mercenaries can be reined in through the creation of a legal framework that can hold them accountable for any wrongdoing. Now both Obama and Clinton should be taken by their words and urged not to abandon their election commitments to end America's rotten mercenary industry.

The September shooting was not the first criminal act by US security contractors in Iraq but it was the first that has come to light. Throughout the US invasion of Iraq the activities of the Blackwater and other firms have infuriated people inside and outside Iraq triggering increasing calls that the companies be banned from operating in the beleaguered country and their criminal employees brought to justice.

Much like Blackwater's abuse of power, Triple Canopy, another US security firm, was involved in one of the most infamous shooting sprees of the invasion in Iraq. On 8 July 2006 -- after barking "I want to kill an Iraqi today", an infamous remark widely reported by some Americans soldiers in Iraq -- a heavily armed Triple Canopy guard in Baghdad shot multiple rounds into the windshield of an unthreatening pickup truck and later a taxi for amusement. Several people were killed or wounded and the rest of the traffickers and bystanders terrified.

The complexity of the American legal system aside, both the Iraqi government and the Obama administration should act decisively and promptly to ensure that justice is served and that these mercenaries should be stripped of immunity and held accountable for any wrongdoing. If national legal systems cannot deal with such cases, international legitimacy, through the International War Crimes Tribunal, should be invoked to put an end to such heinous crimes.

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