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Blackwater case discussed

Iraqis interviewed in an FBI probe reveal details of the shooting and talk about the agents' focus.

October 31, 2007|Christian Berthelsen and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — FBI agents investigating the September shooting incident involving security contractor Blackwater USA in which 17 people died appear focused on whether anyone fired first on the American convoy and have been aggressively gathering ballistic evidence, according to witnesses interviewed by the agents.

In Washington, State and Justice Department officials said the investigation would not be derailed by a reported offer of immunity to the guards. But it remained unclear whether they could be prosecuted under U.S. law for the shooting.

And as anger continued to simmer in Iraq, the government introduced legislation Tuesday stripping American contractors of the immunity from Iraqi law they were granted in 2004 by the U.S.-led authority set up to govern Iraq shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

The FBI team dispatched from Washington this month specializes in investigations outside the United States such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which targeted U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen and one Saudi.

When its investigation is complete, the FBI will submit evidence to Justice Department officials, who will determine whether to prosecute, said a U.S. official familiar with the investigation.

Whether the convoy was fired upon or threatened in some way before the guards hired to protect it began shooting in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square on Sept. 16 is likely to be key to that decision, said Scott Silliman, a former military lawyer who is executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

"I think what they're trying to do is build a case showing the use of force by Blackwater was not justified, and they can do that through witness statements to show that Blackwater and the convoy were not fired upon," Silliman said.

A U.S. source said the FBI team left Baghdad on Sunday after conducting dozens of interviews with witnesses. The FBI declined to comment on the case, as did a spokeswoman for Blackwater. The North Carolina-based security company has said previously that the guards were responding to what they believed to be enemy fire.

The shooting has prompted an intense debate about the role that foreign private armed security contractors have played in the Iraq war and the ambiguous legal environment in which they operate.

If the Justice Department decides to prosecute, experts say it would face serious legal hurdles. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act permits contractors to be prosecuted for actions in foreign lands if they are working in support of a Defense Department mission.

But prosecutors would have to convince a judge that the act also applies to contractors working for the civilian-led State Department.

Since the shooting, Congress has passed legislation that would clearly make all security contractors accountable in American courts, and the State Department has issued new restrictions that will subject their operations to more oversight.

The FBI investigation, undertaken at the request of the State Department, is one of four underway into the shooting, which also wounded 24 people.

Iraqi police, the Pentagon and a joint panel of the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government have also undertaken inquiries. In a preliminary report, the Iraqi government concluded that the Blackwater guards began firing when a vehicle they believed to be attempting a suicide bombing advanced on the convoy.

Three witnesses who spoke with The Times after their debriefings with the FBI said the investigators emphasized the importance of whether the security team was fired upon first.

Witnesses said the interviews lasted about two hours. Agents referred them to a large aerial image of Nisoor Square, and asked them to explain how they arrived at the scene, what their vantage point was when the shooting occurred, their detailed recollection of events, and what the shooters looked like.

"They were focusing mainly on one thing," said Mohammed Hafidh Abdul-Razzaq, 37, whose 10-year-old son, Ali, was shot and killed as he sat in the back seat of their car. "They asked me several times in each interview whether [the guards] were shot at or not."

Baraa Sadoon Ismail, 29, who still has two bullets and 60 bullet fragments in his abdomen from the shooting, agreed that the agents focused on whether the Blackwater guards shot first.

All the witnesses interviewed by The Times said they told investigators they did not see anyone fire on the security guards.

"They asked me whether they were exposed to fire," said Hassan Jabbar Salman, a lawyer who said he was about 20 yards from the guards and was shot four times. "I replied to them that they were never exposed to any kind of fire."

Investigators have taken possession of at least three cars to gather ammunition rounds, the witnesses said. Ismail said investigators also took three bullet fragments that had been removed from his body.

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