Friday, September 28, 2007

More on the Blackwater Incident

This article in the NY Times offers the most detailed description of the fateful incident last week in which Iraqi civilians were killed. It's not flattering:

The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northeast of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.

A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.

“It raises the first question of why didn’t they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound,” the official said. “Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down,” he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.

That was the first bad call by some as yet unknown Blackwater contractor. The second came as the convoy approached the square where the shooting broke out:

At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.

At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.

There are three versions of why the shooting started. The Blackwater guards have told investigators that they believed that they were being fired on, the official familiar with the report said. A preliminary Iraqi investigation has concluded that there was no enemy fire, but some Iraqi witnesses have said that Iraqi commandos in nearby guard towers may have been shooting as well, possibly leading Blackwater guards to believe that militants were firing at them.

After the family was shot, a type of grenade or flare was fired into the car, setting it ablaze, according to some accounts. Other Iraqis were also killed as the shooting continued. Iraqi officials have given several death counts, ranging from 8 to 20, with perhaps several dozen wounded. American officials have said that no Americans were hurt.

At some point during the shooting, one or more Blackwater guards called for a cease-fire, according to the American official.

The word cease-fire “was supposedly called out several times,” the official said. “They had an on-site difference of opinion,” he said.

In the end, a Blackwater guard “got on another one about the situation and supposedly pointed a weapon,” the official said.

No doubt the Blackwater guards believed they were in some danger. Even I don't think that some contractors, however trigger-happy, are likely to light up a crowd of Iraqis just to clear them out for their convoy to pass. Other accounts have speculated though that the contractors started firing at the first vehicle when it refused to stop approaching the convoy, so I'd say there's at least one other plausible explanation for why the contractors may have started firing.

Either way, it betrays a complete lack of preparation, training and professionalism that these contractors resorted to violence so quickly, refused to stop firing when ordered, or that one may have had to actually point a weapon at another to stop him from firing. That, combined with the decision to move the diplomats out of a safe area and into a hostile one in an ironic attempt to "secure" them, lends one to think that some of these contractors, far from being highly trained, are in fact novices who don't really know what they're doing and are shooting up Iraqis in the process. Bad enough to require the equivalent of mercenaries to secure U.S. government officials in Iraq; worse yet that they may not even know what the hell they're doing.

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