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DISPATCH FROM BAGHDAD

Iraqis want justice for 17 killed

In Nisoor Square, the scene of last year's shooting, people say they are eager to see Blackwater guards pay.

December 10, 2008|Tina Susman and Usama Redha | Susman and Redha are Times staff writers.

BAGHDAD — The traffic circle hums on a cool and sunny afternoon, as motorists round the center median with its fake orange palm tree that sparkles at night, blooming flower beds and chunky sculpture.

On such a calm day in Baghdad, it is hard to imagine the carnage that erupted here in Nisoor Square in September 2007, when Blackwater Worldwide security guards killed at least 17 Iraqis in a hail of machine-gun bullets and grenades, but the evidence remains.

Bullet holes pock the small shelter where traffic cops dived for cover. Splotches scar the wall of a school off the square that prosecutors say was hit by American gunfire. Memories rankle people familiar with the story, which still resonates powerfully in Iraq even as the legal repercussions have shifted to courthouses thousands of miles away in the U.S.

Five Blackwater employees, all of them U.S. military veterans, were charged Monday with manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in the case, which strained U.S.-Iraqi relations and galvanized Iraqi opposition to the Western security companies that had operated with impunity here.

Starting Jan. 1, private security details such as Blackwater will be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction if accused of crimes committed while off American bases, a change demanded by Iraq's government after the Blackwater incident and others involving different companies that resulted in civilian deaths on a smaller scale.

The current Blackwater defendants won't face trial in Iraq, but they could face decades in prison in the United States if convicted, something that pleases Iraqis such as Ali Abdul Ali.

"This is good," said Ali, an unemployed military veteran. "It means no one is above the law, even if he's an element of foreign forces. It also means the victims will get justice."

Ali, who comes often to an abandoned bus stop near Nisoor Square to sit in the sunshine and think about life, has a friend whose mother was among 20 Iraqis shot and wounded in the incident. Like other Iraqis in the circle that day, the friend said the shooting was unjustified, he said.

"These people were armed and they were shooting innocent people," Ali said.

That's not how the Blackwater guards tell it. They say their convoy came under attack as they escorted U.S. State Department officials and that they fired in self-defense.

In the square Tuesday, the sound of gunfire was constant and clear over the cacophony of car engines, tooting horns and sirens from the intimidating convoys that still tear through the circle, but it was from an Iraqi police firing range nearby.

Police officers stationed in the circle were happy to discuss the Blackwater case and to show off the bullet holes from that day. One of them quickly interrupted his lunch of beans, rice and bread to weigh in.

"I heard about [the charges against the Blackwater employees] yesterday on the news," said the officer, who like his colleagues was not authorized to speak to reporters and would not give a name. "Because they killed 17 innocent people, of course they should be arrested."

The policeman, who has worked this spot for five years, was not in the square the day of the shooting but came to work the next day to see wrecked cars, blood-stained streets, bullet casings. He pointed to a section of gnarled concrete in the busy street a few feet away.

"That's where the doctor and her son died," he said, referring to Mahasin Mohssen Khadum Khazali and her son, Ahmed Haitham Ahmed Rubaie, who were in a white sedan that the Blackwater guards said they suspected of being rigged to explode.

"Justice should be served. These victims -- their rights should be taken into consideration," said another policeman, edging in front of the first cop and quickly taking over the conversation. This officer said that if the Blackwater guards are convicted, they should die.

"This is the law of God. In the Arab world, anyone who kills someone, he should be killed," he said.

They scoffed at the idea that the guards might have felt genuinely threatened because of the situation in Baghdad at the time. Violence was far worse then, when attacks on U.S. forces were daily events. That month, 70 foreign troops, including 66 Americans, were killed across Iraq, according to the independent website icasualties.org. Last month, the total was 17.

"This place is surrounded. It is secure," the second officer said, noting the national guard base on one side of the square and another government building on the other. "It's impossible" that anyone could have felt threatened, he said.

Minutes later, a U.S. military convoy entered the circle. Civilian traffic ground to a halt to let the vehicles pass, but they stopped midway through. A group of U.S. soldiers walked toward the Iraqi police.

"Let's have it," one of them sternly said to a U.S. journalist who had been filming the square, referring to the memory chip of his video camera.

The soldier uttered an obscenity about filming the convoy but backed off without taking the memory chip after another American intervened, satisfied that the journalists were more interested in the scene at the square, not the convoy that had rolled into view.

Afterward, one policeman joked that it was good the journalists were of the "same tribe" as the soldiers. If they'd been Iraqis, he said, they would have been locked up.

--

tina.susman@latimes.com

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