(Tried to put this in General Forum but the server told me to take a hike… 😉
BAGHDAD, Sept. 27 — Participants in a contentious Baghdad security operation this month have told American investigators that during the operation at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues urgently called for a cease-fire. At least one guard apparently also drew a weapon on a fellow guard who did not stop shooting, an American official said.
The Reach of War
The operation, by the private firm Blackwater USA began as a mission to evacuate senior American officials after an explosion near where they were meeting, several officials said. Some officials have questioned the wisdom of evacuating the Americans from a secure compound, saying the area should instead have been locked down.
These new details of the episode on Sept. 16, in which at least eight Iraqis were killed, including a woman and an infant, were provided by an American official who was briefed on the American investigation by someone who helped conduct it, and by Americans who had spoken directly with two guards involved in the episode. Their accounts were broadly consistent.
A spokeswoman for Blackwater, Anne E. Tyrrell, said she could not confirm any of the details provided by the Americans.
The accounts provided the first glimpse into the official American investigation of the shooting, which has angered Iraqi officials and prompted calls by the Iraqi government to ban Blackwater from working in Iraq and brought new scrutiny of the widespread use of private security contractors here.
The American official said that by Wednesday morning, American investigators still had not responded to multiple requests for information by Iraqi officials investigating the episode. The official also said that Blackwater had been conducting its own investigation but had been ordered by the United States to stop that work. Ms. Tyrrell confirmed that the company had done an investigation of its own, but said, “No government entity has discouraged us from doing so.ï¿½?
An Iraqi investigation had concluded that the guards shot without provocation. But the official said that the guards told American investigators that they believed that they fired in response to enemy gunfire.
The Blackwater compound, rimmed by concrete blast walls and concertina wire in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, has been under tight control. Participants in the Sept. 16 security operation have been ordered not to speak about the episode. But word of the disagreement on the street has slowly made its way through the community of private security contractors.
The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northwest of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.
A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.
“It raises the first question of why didn’t they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound,ï¿½? the official said. “Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down,ï¿½? he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.
At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.
At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.
There are three versions of why the shooting started. The Blackwater guards have told investigators that they believed that they were being fired on, the official familiar with the report said. A preliminary Iraqi investigation has concluded that there was no enemy fire, but some Iraqi witnesses have said that Iraqi commandos in nearby guard towers may have been shooting as well, possibly leading Blackwater guards to believe that militants were firing at them.
After the family was shot, a type of grenade or flare was fired into the car, setting it ablaze, according to some accounts. Other Iraqis were also killed as the shooting continued. Iraqi officials have given several death counts, ranging from 8 to 20, with perhaps several dozen wounded. American officials have said that no Americans were hurt.
At some point during the shooting, one or more Blackwater guards called for a cease-fire, according to the American official.
The word cease-fire “was supposedly called out several times,ï¿½? the official said. “They had an on-site difference of opinion,ï¿½? he said.
In the end, a Blackwater guard “got on another one about the situation and supposedly pointed a weapon,ï¿½? the official said.
“That’s what prompted this internal altercation,ï¿½? the official said.
The official added that in the urgent moment of a shooting events could often become confused, and cautioned against leaping to hasty conclusions about who was to blame.