Six Blackwater Worldwide security guards have been notified that they could face prosecution in America for shooting dead 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in an infamous incident that provoked fury in Iraq.
The Blackwater employees have reportedly been sent “target letters” by US prosecutors telling them that they could face charges for opening fire at the crowded intersection on September 16 last year.
The move was welcomed by human rights activists, who have long complained about US private security in Iraq.
“It’s incredibly important that these incidents are not beyond the law. It certainly would be a step in the right direction if the US would go ahead and bring charges,” said Jennifer Daskal, of Human Rights Watch, who has interviewed the traffic policeman on duty in Nisoor Square at the time of the shooting. “This is definitely the most high-profile case of contractor abuse in Iraq, but it’s certainly not the only one.”
The shootings sparked a crisis in relations between the US and the Iraqi Government, which threatened to expel Blackwater. In negotiations on a new bilateral security agreement, the Iraqis have pressed for all foreign personnel to be subject to Iraqi law.
Washington has agreed to place contractors under Iraqi jurisdiction, but is still refusing to allow Iraq to put US troops or officials on trial. Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has announced that it is moving out of private security and will concentrate on training, aviation and logistics.
The Blackwater guards, all former US servicemen on contract to protect US State Department personnel, opened fire after their motorcade entered Nisoor Square. US officials initially said that the motorcade was travelling to the heavily guarded Green Zone when a car bomb exploded, followed by volleys of small-arms fire that disabled one of the vehicles.
In remarks prepared for a congressional hearing but never delivered because of the investigation, Erik Prince, the chairman of Blackwater, claimed that the guards had “returned fire at threatening targets”, including “men with AK47s firing on the convoy” and “approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers”.
Witnesses said that the four-car convoy, protected by two helicopters, did a U-turn and started going the wrong way round the square before stopping in the middle and opening fire without provocation.
Earlier reports suggested that the FBI was focusing on three Blackwater guards. The Washington Post reported that six had been sent “target letters” – a prelude to possible prosecution.
The US employs 190,000 contractors in Iraq, including 25,000 to 30,000 private security guards. Although heavily armed, the private security contractors enjoy immunity from Iraqi law under a decree issued by Paul Bremer the day before he stepped down as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004.
Contractors hired by the US Defence Department can be prosecuted in US courts for crimes committed overseas under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000. That law was expanded in 2004 to include contractors working “in support” of the Pentagon.
A federal grand jury has heard testimony from three dozen people, but a decision about whether to indict the Blackwater guards may not be made until October, the newspaper said. Experts compare the case to a police shooting where an officer is accused of using excessive force, but say it will be even harder to prove in a US court.
The victims’ families have been offered $10,000 (about £5,400) compensation for each person killed, but most have refused what one called “blood money”. The families are suing Blackwater in the US courts.
Anne Tyrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said: “If it is determined that an individual acted improperly, Blackwater would support holding that person accountable. But at this stage, without being able to review evidence collected in an ongoing investigation, we will not prejudge the actions of any individual.”
1997 Blackwater founded by former US Navy Seal Erik Prince
March 2004: Four employees killed and mutilated in Fallujah
June 2004: Security firms granted immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law
September 2007: Blackwater guards open fire in Nisoor Square in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqis and wounding two dozen
October 2007: US House passes Bill to make contractors in Iraq subject to prosecution in US courts. Iraq demands that the US end its association with Blackwater and approves draft law revoking their immunity
November 2007: FBI investigation concludes that at least 14 of the September shootings were unjustified
April 2008: Iraqi Government upset by news that the US State Department is renewing Blackwater’s contract to protect its embassy staff
August 2008: US prosecutors send letters to six Blackwater security guards in a move that could lead to groundbreaking criminal indictments. The Iraqi Government emphasises its own right to prosecute the company