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Grieving Iraqis want honor first, not money

Families of Blackwater shooting victims are insulted by the U.S. legal mind-set. They demand an apology.

May 04, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — He refused to take the Americans' blood money.

Mohammed Hafidh Abdul-Razzaq had been summoned by U.S. Embassy officials who wanted to make amends for the killing of his 10-year-old son. The boy died during a shooting involving employees of Blackwater Worldwide, the U.S. security firm.

Deputy Chief of Mission Patricia A. Butenis told him that she was sorry for what had happened, Abdul-Razzaq recalled. She gave him a sealed envelope. It had his name written on it. Abdul-Razzaq pushed it away.

"I told her I refuse to receive any amount," the auto parts dealer said. "My father is a tribal sheik, and we're not used to taking any amount unless the concerned will come and confess and apologize. Then we will talk about compensation."

In September, Blackwater contractors protecting an embassy mission killed 17 Iraqis, including Abdul-Razzaq's boy, and injured at least two dozen in a widely publicized incident in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Blackwater officials have said their workers feared they were under attack; Iraqi officials and witnesses called it a massacre.

U.S. officials say the investigation of the shooting continues, though they have been tight-lipped about details. An FBI report is due this year. In April, the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract for another year, a move that enraged many Iraqis affected by the killings.

Far from bringing justice and closure, the investigations underline the frictions between Americans and Iraqis that have plagued the five-year U.S. presence. The shooting and its aftermath show the deep disconnect between the American legal process and the traditional culture of Iraq, between the courtroom and the tribal diwan.

U.S. officials painstakingly examine evidence and laws while attempting to satisfy victims' claims through cash compensation.

But traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all. If a man kills or badly injures someone in an accident, both families convene a tribal summit. The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.

"Our system is so different from theirs," said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. "An honor settlement has to be both financial and it has to have the right symbolism. We would never accept their way of doing things, and they don't accept ours."

Citing confidentiality requirements, U.S. officials declined to speak publicly about the Blackwater investigations. Iraqi victims are the only witnesses to the behind-the-scenes legal process who are willing to talk. Their accounts of the investigation jibed individually as well as with the typical narrative of U.S. criminal investigation.

Under U.S. military doctrine, rules of engagement allow U.S. soldiers and contractors in a combat zone to defend themselves if they fear they are under attack. The rules tighten and loosen as conditions on the ground shift. The Nisoor Square incident took place at the end of what had been one of the worst periods of violence in Iraq.

The Blackwater team says it was justified in firing to protect itself and the State Department officials it was guarding. Speaking before Congress, Blackwater owner Erik Prince said the team was doing its duty in the face of an onslaught, and he described the square as "a terrorist crime scene."

Prince offended those who say they were simply going about their day's chores.

Baraa Sadoon Ismail, 29, a father of two, was severely injured in the gunfire while driving to a relative's house. Doctors told him he had 60 fragments of bullet lodged in his abdomen. He said he had undergone surgery to remove three pieces that threatened major organs.

He has met with eight committees of investigators so far, including twice with the FBI. Teams of three or four people would sit in a room with him. They would show him an aerial map on a table. They asked how and when and where the shooting started. Where was this victim? Where were you?

Several times he asked about his car, which was shot up in the incident. Investigators told him it was still needed for the investigation. They wanted to know whether he planned to ask for compensation. He was miffed.

"I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious," he said he told them.

Physician Haitham Rubaie doesn't want money either. What he wants above all is justice for his wife, a doctor, and his son, a medical student, who died.

He rebuffed attempts to have a donation to an orphanage made in his family's name. No amount of cash, no matter how well-intentioned, would sweep this under the rug.

"I don't want any help from you," he said he told them. "If you want to help the orphans, you give them money yourselves."

If North Carolina-based Blackwater wanted to negotiate, it would have to apologize, publicly and loudly, he said.

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