Blackwater charges expected

An Iraqi official predicts action within days in connection with Baghdad shootings

The New York TimesSeptember 23, 2007 

— The Iraqi government said Saturday that it expects to refer criminal charges to its courts within days in connection with a shooting by a private American security company.

The Interior Ministry gave new details of six other episodes it is investigating involving the company.

The state minister for national security affairs, Shirwan al-Waili, said the government had received little information from the American side in the early days of a joint investigation into the shooting, which involved North Carolina-based Blackwater USA and left 11 Iraqis dead. But he said that the Iraqi investigation was largely completed and that he thought the findings were definitive. "The shots fired on the Iraqis were unjustifiable," he said. "It was harsh and horrible."

Although Waili did not spell out what the investigative committee would recommend to the criminal court, a preliminary report of findings by the Interior Ministry, the National Security Ministry and the Defense Ministry stated that "the murder of citizens in cold blood in the Nisour area by Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against civilians just like any other terrorist operation."

"The criminals will be referred to the Iraqi court system," it said.

However, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied that authorities had decided to file charges against the Blackwater guards and said Saturday that no decision had been taken whether to seek punishment, The Associated Press reported.

"The necessary measures will be taken that will preserve the honor of the Iraqi people," he said in New York, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived Friday for the U.N. General Assembly session. "We have ongoing high-level meetings with the U.S. side about this issue."

The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, also laid out previous episodes involving Blackwater this year in which he said a total of 10 Iraqis had been killed and 15 wounded. The company would not comment on those incidents Saturday.

The details came as Maliki was at the United Nations to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials to discuss Iraqi security and other issues. The Iraqi government has already demanded that Blackwater, which handles security for diplomatic personnel, be banned from working in Iraq, and the broadening investigation is sure to pull the Iraqis and their American supporters even farther apart.

The main shooting under investigation began near midday last Sunday when Blackwater guards fired at Iraqi civilians for reasons that neither the company nor the U.S. government, which is also investigating, have fully explained.

Some witnesses have said that Iraqi army soldiers nearby also began firing at some point, greatly complicating efforts to understand what happened and raising the question, at least among American officials, of whether the Blackwater guards thought they were under attack and acted properly.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has said evidence collected in the case includes videotape from nearby cameras indicating that the Blackwater guards fired first and weren't responding to an attack, as Blackwater has claimed.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Saturday that she knew nothing about the videotape and was contractually prohibited from discussing details of the shooting, AP reported.

Iraqi officials indicated that they were weighing the earlier shootings involving Blackwater in their consideration of what the practical consequences of the Nisour Square shooting should be.

"The American Blackwater company has made for the seventh time the same mistake against the Iraqis and in different places in Baghdad," according to a preliminary report from the Iraqi investigation obtained by The New York Times.

According to Khalaf, the other events under investigation are: a Feb. 4 shooting that killed an Iraqi journalist near the Foreign Ministry; a Feb. 7 shooting in which three guards at the Iraqi state television station were killed; a Feb. 14 episode in which Blackwater employees are accused of smashing windshields; a shooting in May that killed one person near the Interior Ministry; a Sept. 9 shooting that killed five people near a Baghdad city government building, and a Sept. 12 shooting that wounded five people in eastern Baghdad.

No results of the American inquiry have been made public. For that reason, American officials have privately cautioned against drawing early conclusions.

Even if murder charges were referred to Iraqi courts, it is unclear what real legal peril would be faced by Blackwater or any of its employees. A provision signed by L. Paul Bremer III in 2004, while he was the top American administrator in Iraq, was later enshrined into Iraqi law, effectively giving security companies working for the U.S. government immunity from prosecution here.

Perhaps for that reason, no Western contractors of any kind are known to have been convicted of any crimes in Iraq.

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