In Iraq, Blackwater verdict provides no relief from bitterness

A car still at a traffic circle in central Baghdad where a shoot-out with private security company Blackwater left 9 Iraqis dead and 15 injured, Sept 17, 2007. (Hussein Kadhim/MCT)
A car still at a traffic circle in central Baghdad where a shoot-out with private security company Blackwater left 9 Iraqis dead and 15 injured, Sept 17, 2007. (Hussein Kadhim/MCT) MCT

Like most Iraqis, Ali Abbas Mahmoud didn’t know when he awoke Thursday that a jury in Washington had found four former Blackwater security guards guilty the previous day in one of the most infamous episodes of the U.S.-led occupation. That’s because the verdicts weren’t widely reported by the Iraqi media.

“They killed my elder brother and his son, but can this conviction bring them back?” asked Mahmoud, who learned about the outcome of the 10-week trial from an American journalist only hours before speaking to McClatchy.

The verdicts, rendered a little more than seven years after Blackwater gunfire felled Mahmoud’s kin and other civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle, weren’t major news. Not even the newly formed U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi issued a formal statement.

One official suggested that Iraqis are too preoccupied with the savagery of the Islamic State onslaught that’s claimed thousands of lives since mid-June to care about a trial involving a handful of deaths from the distant past.

“We have a kind of ignorance in the Iraqi media. Why? The tragedy that the Iraqis are suffering from now is from more than a security company that killed a few Iraqis,” said Kamil Ameen Hashim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Human Rights.

At the time they took place, however, the killings in Nisour Square ignited outrage across Iraq and much of the world.

For many Iraqis, the incident – coming on top of the infamous detainee abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison and the killings by U.S. Marines of 24 civilians at Haditha – epitomized much that was wrong with the occupation. That was especially true for what was widely seen as the impunity afforded to Blackwater and legions of other private U.S. security contractors who poured into Iraq after the 2003 invasion to guard American diplomats, U.S. facilities and the private businesses that kept the occupation running.

“The Americans can do anything, whether it happened five years ago or now,” said Mahmoud.

The four former Blackwater guards were part of a unit that had taken up positions around Nisour Square, a busy Baghdad traffic circle, on Sept. 16, 2007. They opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers in response to what they claimed was an insurgent attack. At least 14 civilians, including two young boys, died and 18 were wounded.

After 28 days of deliberations, a U.S. District Court jury on Wednesday found one defendant guilty of murder and convicted the other three on manslaughter and weapons charges.

One of the dead boys was Mahmoud’s 11-year-old nephew, Qasim Muhammad Abbas. Qasim’s father, Muhammad Abbas Mahmoud – Ali Abbas Mahmoud’s elder brother – also died. The boy’s mother was wounded.

The family was sitting inside a pickup when the shooting broke out. Members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, they were hauling furniture to a new home in a Shiite neighborhood after tensions with minority Sunni Muslims forced them to leave their old house.

Ali Abbas Mahmoud, a 52-year-old Ministry of Housing employee who agreed to speak by telephone but refused a face-to-face interview, said he’d never forget how his sister-in-law, frantic with grief and terror, called him as she sat bleeding inside the pickup.

“She made me hysterical when she called me and told me that my brother had just been killed,” he recounted. “She was in the vehicle. She screamed, ‘They slaughtered your brother and they slaughtered your nephew and I’m injured.’ She made me as hysterical as she was.”

Mahmoud remains deeply bitter. He expressed suspicion about the outcome of the trial.

“I’m not convinced that the verdicts aren’t some kind of play to tell the world that the United States respects human beings and they’re valuable, while in fact it’s the opposite, that humans aren’t valuable to them,” he said. “If they are valuable, why do they hire these killers? In my opinion, it’s just a kind of media show.”

The trial took place after years of diplomatic and legal wrangling that saw the case moved to the United States and dismissed by a U.S. judge in 2009 only to be reinstated on appeal. Iraqi lawyers had to undergo U.S. legal training, and 30 witnesses were flown to Washington to testify.

“The entire trial was supposed to take place in Iraq, because the incident took place here and those people who died were killed in Iraq and those guards killed them in Iraq. But because those guards had a kind of immunity it didn’t take place here,” said Alia Nusayif, a member of the Law Committee of the Iraqi parliament from Abadi’s State of Law coalition.

“I believe that the fair punishment for them should be execution, because they committed deliberate crimes and the law should punish them according to their crimes,” she continued. “They killed them in cold blood, and many Iraqis believe that just putting these guards in prison isn’t fair enough.”

Hashim, the Human Rights Ministry spokesman, said the trial had produced the proper results.

“We definitely felt relief when we heard about this conviction because it means that no one can evade punishment,” he said. “It’s not a kind of revenge. It’s like putting the right things in the right place.”

Mahmoud said the verdicts did nothing to alter his hatred for the United States or his opposition to the ongoing U.S.-led military intervention against the Islamic State group.

The trial “reminds us of the pain and sorrow we suffered. We know that from the beginning, when they invaded Iraq in 2003, that the Americans are tyrants. When they invaded Iraq, they invented a reason for that,” he said. “Now, whether legally or illegally, they want to come back again.”