Four former Blackwater contractors were convicted yesterday on charges ranging from murder and manslaughter to weapons charges in the shooting deaths of fourteen people in Nisour Square in central Baghdad. This is a topic I have wanted to write about for months but held off out of respect for the legal proceedings.
I was less than a mile away the day it happened, I know several people directly involved in the case, and I saw raw footage that afternoon of the aftermath of the attack filmed by an Iraqi National Police officer I worked with. I led the American team at the Joint Security Station near Muthana Airfield and we – in conjunction with the Iraqi National Police Brigade nominally responsible for security in the district – coordinated operations in the Karkh District of Baghdad, which includes Nisour Square. We were the only Americans in the district who lived outside the Forward Operating Base and with our Iraqi counterparts.
In my assessment – I’ll go into much more detail below – the jury reached the correct verdict. This was an incident entirely of Blackwater’s creation and could have, indeed would have, been avoided had they exercised any level of coordination with either US or Iraqi forces. I don’t think any of the men in the security detail named Raven 23 woke up that morning and decided to kill fourteen innocent civilians, but that’s exactly what they did.
I was surprised when I heard the initial reports of a firefight at that specific location – it didn’t make sense. Once the shooting stopped my National Police counterparts walked through the scene with a video camera (one they always took to record their actions). The results were devastating. I saw no indication of insurgents or weapons or even bi-directional fighting. All of the carnage was one way, although to be fair the Blackwater trucks had departed by the time this video was shot. Even a single 7.62 impact on their vehicle could have served as supporting evidence of their claim that they’d been attacked, but to my knowledge it doesn’t exist. The prosecution successfully argued that the only damage to a Blackwater vehicle came from the contractors themselves.
Immediately after seeing that video I told the Iraqis with me that someone should go to jail for a long time. To explain how I arrived at this assessment I’ll go into some detail about the Karkh District of Baghdad, State Department security details (see also my review of The Bremer Detail, which sounds many of the same themes), and what I personally saw and heard during and after the incident.
The Karkh District. This district of central Baghdad in September 2007 was relatively peaceful. When violence occurred it was usually in the form of a car-bomb (VBIED in military parlance – Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device). There were very few of the IED attacks on US forces that were common in other areas of the city and direct fire attacks were even less common.
I went on dozens of patrols in Karkh, with and without the Iraqis, and travelled through Nisour Square (actually an awkward traffic circle with an odd underground lane) about four times a week. Located meters from both an American FOB and the Headquarters of the Iraqi National Police, Nisour Square would have been an odd choice for the insurgents had they wanted to harass a US or Blackwater patrol.
In addition, there was a tower manned by Iraqi forces equipped with automatic weapons overlooking the square. They captured what appears to be video of the aftermath of the attack – note the pair of Blackwater helicopters circling overhead (I observed those same helicopters from my position after the attack) and the large number of Iraqi National Police forces emerging from the right side of the frame – from the direction of the National Police Headquarters. The two vehicles in the foreground are National Police trucks, parked at the entrance to a side road used primarily to get to and from a Green Zone entry point. At 2:39 in the video you can see a convoy of Blackwater vehicles emerge from this road and attempt to gain access to the square before they are rebuffed by the Iraqis.
There was always a Traffic Policeman on duty in the square (more on this later) as major traffic arteries converged on this square.
In the roughly nine months I spent living and working with Iraqis in the Karkh district, the Blackwater incident was the only SIGACT (Significant Action) to occur in Nisour Square – no other explosions, no reports of direct fire, no IEDs. Nothing.
Blackwater. You might think, after having spent over four years fighting in Baghdad, that the US military was aware of the precise location of each patrol traveling the streets of Baghdad. We didn’t. We knew where our patrols were, and in early 2007 we started much closer coordination with the Iraqi security forces – my primary mission at the JSS. Every day I knew what US patrols were outside the wire where they were going. I also knew, with a little less certainty, what Iraqi patrols were going out and where, however their forces were largely static on checkpoints spread throughout the district.
The one group left out of that picture was the State Department security detail – Blackwater. Prior to this incident DoS refused to give the US military visibility on where it’s security forces would be heading. After this incident, that visibility happened very quickly. This Congressional Research Service report notes that,”According to officials at the Department of Defense, the Blackwater shooting incident…was a watershed event that highlighted the need for improved management and oversight of all U.S. government private security contractors operating in Iraq.”
A less publicized facet of The Surge in Iraq was that alongside an increased military presence there was an increased State Department presence as well working legal, political, and economic issues. They often met with Iraqis outside the Green Zone for legitimate and important reasons – counterinsurgency is not strictly, or even primarily, a military conflict.
The military never had enough troops in Iraq – even during The Surge – to afford cutting a protective detail to every civilian who needed to leave the Green Zone, so DoS hired Blackwater.
Here’s the problem with this arrangement: Blackwater wasn’t fighting a counterinsurgency campaign. They had one mission, protection. They were not subject to US military oversight and did not follow our Rules of Engagement. This interviewsuggests that State Department ROE required “a graduated use of force proportionate to whatever attacks they come under.”
Perhaps most importantly, they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions. If they pissed people off, fired in the air or at the ground to clear traffic (a common complaint from the Iraqis), or harassed innocent Iraqis trying to move around the city, it fell upon the US or Iraqi military to mop up afterwards. As long as their diplomat got from point A to point B and back safely, their mission was a success, period.
Many of the Blackwater employees were ex-military with Iraq experience, which makes sense at first blush. However, Baghdad in the fall of 2007 was nothing like Baghdad in 2003-2005 – circumstances on the ground had changed dramatically. The 1st Cavalry Division, head of Multi-National Division, Baghdad in 2007, had ordered patrols to drive “nicer”, not hog the road or throw water bottles at Iraqi cars or otherwise intimidate the Iraqi people. Every “Escalation of Force” incident was thoroughlyinvestigated to ensure the proper procedures were followed.
So what existed in the fall of 2007 was a force outside of US military jurisdiction, comprised of men with an animosity toward the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces, who all had a singular focus, were untrained in counterinsurgency warfare, and were on a battlefield that had significantly changed since the last time many of them were in Iraq. This was a combustible cocktail that just needed a spark.
September 16th, 2007. That spark was provided in the form of a VBIED attack in the Mansoor District, adjacent to Karkh and near the financial compound where a State Department official was visiting. I heard this VBIED, felt it in fact, but since it was in another district we simply called in a spot report and let our brothers in the adjacent unit handle it. VBIEDs were common in Baghdad that summer and fall, but they were primarily a Sunni insurgent weapon often used against Shia targets and only seldom against US forces.
As a result of this VBIED, Blackwater called out a tactical support team (TST) to secure the DoS official.
The Blackwater forces involved in the Nisour Square shooting were in a third group of forces, code-named Raven 23, assigned to secure Nisour Square and allow the TST to re-enter the Green Zone through Entry Control Point 12 (south of Nisour Square).
This is where the trouble starts. Remember the Traffic Policeman I mentioned above? He could have easily maneuvered traffic in the square – this is his job – to allow the TST to quickly make its way through. And he likely would have done so if asked, but Blackwater chose to do it themselves.
Why? Probably a couple reasons. The mentality of someone whose last tour in Iraq was in 2004 is not to trust the ISF. Because they hadn’t been working with and training the Iraqis, the Blackwater contractors didn’t realize how much they had improved. Second, it’s doubtful they had an interpreter with them. Those security teams had one focus: getting a DoS diplomat to a meeting and back safe. That diplomat would have a linguist, but Raven 23 wasn’t escorting anyone that day and likely did not have anyone with them who spoke Arabic (I could be wrong on this point, I haven’t seen this question answered anywhere).
It’s likely we’ll never know exactly what transpired that day to precipitate this atrocity, but here’s what I think happened.
Like they had many times before, I think Blackwater fired a few rounds (conducted an Escalation of Force) to get traffic to stop. Whether it was purposely targeted or not, one of those rounds killed the driver of a vehicle, causing his foot to slip off the brake and sending the vehicle heading toward the Blackwater vehicle. This caused a chain reaction of more bullets being fired at the vehicle to try to stop it, which likely resulted in other vehicles trying to get the hell out of the way.
Other Blackwater guards joined in the shooting, not because they saw a threat but because they saw where their buddies were shooting and assumed they were shooting at a real target. Iraqis scattered, trying to run away from the shooting. An Iraqi policeman may have fired at the Blackwater contractors to get them to stop.
Blackwater didn’t stop. They applied maximum force, including 40mm grenades, again and again until they determined the threat – if it existed at all – was gone. By this time the TST they had been charged with helping had been diverted to another Green Zone gate because of the shooting and Blackwater helicopters had been dispatched and were overhead.
Raven 23 then egressed back to the Green Zone and minutes later the video above begins recording the scene. What the Blackwater contractors did at this point is unclear. I’m sure they conducted some kind of informal after-action review, if only to get a sense of what everyone else saw and did. Could a story have been concocted during this time? Sure, but I doubt they needed to. They’d all been in firefights before, which are extremely confusing and chaotic events. Experiences and memories are going to differ as a matter of course. And you have to trust your buddy in combat – if he’s firing at something it has to be a threat.
There are allegations that their vehicles were repainted to deliberately conceal evidence. And one of the initial statements of the guards was leaked to ABC News. Dated two days after the accident, this statement is almost surely fiction, but how much of it was created in his mind during the event and how much was created afterward to justify his actions is anyone’s guess.
Had this massacre happened almost anywhere else in Baghdad they might have gotten away with it, but within minutes the scene was swarming with Iraqi National Police from their headquarters not far away and first responders to douse the flames and tend to the wounded. There was no shortage of witnesses, from the soldiers in the tower to the Traffic policeman to the civilians in the square, and they all told the same story.
The Iraqis treated this incident very seriously from the start. The Brigade commander I advised was incensed. He saw the carnage first hand and brought back the video to show me. Prime Minister Maliki kicked Blackwater out of the country following the incident and took action against those contractors who caught on with other companies as well. The Iraqi investigation came to the same conclusion as the US investigation did: there were no insurgents, Blackwater did this.
There were all sorts of legal issues with bringing these men to trial, none of which I’ll go into here. I will have more to say about the possible implications of the verdict in the coming days, but this post is already too long.
What is important is that a jury finally heard all of the evidence during an 11-week trial, studied it, deliberated for 28 days, and returned a just verdict. Watching that video seven years ago there’s no way I could have known justice for those killed on that day would take this long, but I do hope the families of those killed that day have a sense that, even though our troops have gone home, America has not forgotten them.
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