The Blackwater security forces that opened fire on a public square in Baghdad last month, leaving 17 dead, attacked fleeing Iraqi civilians in a "criminal event," according to American soldiers on the scene just minutes after the incident. News of the Army report comes just a day after the families of three Iraqis killed in the September 16 incident, along with another Iraqi man who was injured, filed a lawsuit against Blackwater in US federal court. The fallout over the incident has made it increasingly difficult for contractors to operate in Iraq, and also Afghanistan.
The Washington Post says that according to their report, the US soldiers – after investigations at the square and interviews with witnesses and Iraqi police – found no evidence that any Iraqis had fired weapons and concluded that there was "no enemy activity involved." They did find evidence, however, that indicated Blackwater contractors fired on civilian vehicles fleeing the square.
"It appeared to me they were fleeing the scene when they were engaged. It had every indication of an excessive shooting," said Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa, whose soldiers reached Nisoor Square 20 to 25 minutes after the gunfire subsided.
Tarsa said they found no evidence to indicate that the Blackwater guards were provoked or entered into a confrontation. "I did not see anything that indicated they were fired upon," said Tarsa, 42, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. He also said it appeared that several drivers had made U-turns and were moving away from Nisoor Square when their vehicles were hit by gunfire from Blackwater guards.
"Blackwater created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company's financial interests at the expense of innocent human life," the 17-page complaint says. Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company was aware of the lawsuit and would defend itself vigorously. She declined to comment further on the Nisoor Square incident until an ongoing FBI investigation is completed.
Blackwater's woes were compounded Thursday by the release of a United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) report that calls for the US to hold security contractors accountable for offenses committed in Iraq.
The legal status of thousands of private contractors working in Iraq remains unclear. While not officially considered employees of the US government, Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 17 of 2004 nevertheless grants them immunity from prosecution within the Iraqi judicial system "with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto." While CPA Order 17 also enables the US Government to waive a contractor's immunity, to UNAMI's knowledge it has not done so to date.
Certain categories of contractor employees are subject to US military law under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), amended in January 2007 to broaden its scope to allow military jurisdiction over persons "serving with or accompanying an armed force in the field" during a "time of declared war or a contingency operation". Contractors who commit offences over which the US Government has extraterritorial jurisdiction can also be prosecuted in the US court system. UNAMI shares ICRC's [International Committee of the Red Cross] view that private military firms must respect international humanitarian law and that the increasing recourse to their services "risks eroding the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants because these people may not appear clearly as quite one or the other".
The Independent (London) adds that Ivana Vuco, the most senior UN human rights officer in Iraq, said that Blackwater and other firms operating in Iraq may have broken international human rights laws, and that they could face prosecution.
"For us, it's a human rights issue," she said. "We will monitor the allegations of killings by security contractors and look into whether or not crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed." ... Ms Vuco said human rights laws applied equally to contractors and other parties in a conflict. "We will be stressing that in our communications with US authorities. This includes the responsibility to investigate, supervise and prosecute those accused of wrongdoing," she said at the launch in Baghdad of the latest UN human rights report, covering the period from April to June. It described the human rights situation in Iraq as "very grim".
In a news analysis, The New York Times writes that the main problem is determining under what laws security companies should be held accountable. One option is to remove the contractors' immunity from Iraqi law, but experts suggest that the US would be hesitant to submit contractors to Iraqi courts, which lack many of the legal protections of their American counterparts. And while America's military law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, was expanded in 2006 to apply to military contractors, there are ongoing debates as to how the expanded law should be implemented.
In the meantime, acting for the injured Iraqi and three families of Blackwater shooting victims, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York has filed a lawsuit in federal district court for the District of Columbia, reports The Washington Times. CCR had defended Abu Ghraib inmates since 2004. Susan L. Burke, the attorney responsible for the Blackwater case, says that the Iraqi families contacted two of her employees working in Iraq and "asked for help." The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from Blackwater and its CEO and founder, Erik Prince.
Iraqi families filed a wrongful-death lawsuit yesterday against the private security firm Blackwater, claiming that the security company and its affiliates violated U.S. law in committing "extrajudicial killings and war crimes" in last month's shootout in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
Blackwater Chairman and CEO Erik Prince also is named in the suit, which represents the first time Iraqis have taken U.S. legal action against a company working under contract from the U.S. government.
In order to deal with similar concerns about unregulated security firms in Afghanistan, the Afghan government has begun cracking down on private contractors, reports the Associated Press. Two private Afghan contractors were raided and shut down this week, and over a dozen more face forced closures soon, according to Afghan police and Western officials.
The government is proposing new rules to tighten control over such firms, including some Western companies, amid concerns they intimidate Afghans, show disrespect to local security forces and don't cooperate with authorities, according to a draft policy document obtained by the AP. The draft rules, which are under discussion by President Hamid Karzai's government, say the main problem is the absence of "checks and balances" over the work of private security companies. That lack "has generated an unfortunate and nearly anarchical PSC market with a long series of security problems and criminal activities," the draft says. It also warns that operating as a security company can provide cover for a "wide range of militia and criminal groups."
The Afghan Interior Ministry says there are 59 Afghan and foreign security contractors operating in the country, though a Western official says there could be as many as 25 more unregistered firms. The AP writes that many foreign embassies rely on contractors for security, as they feel Afghan forces lack the skill and trustworthiness required for the job.