In contractors' shootings, Iraqis search for justice
The US Embassy in Iraq is now offering to pay relatives of those killed in a shooting involving Blackwater USA.
Baghdad — Mohammed Hafidh says he refused to accept an envelope filled with $12,500 in cash from Patricia Butenis, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Baghdad, as compensation for the death of his 10-year-old son, Ali.
"I told her that I want the courts to have their say," says Mr. Hafidh, whose son was among 17 Iraqi civilians killed in a Sept. 16 shooting involving Blackwater USA security guards – private contractors who were escorting a US diplomat at the time.
Haythem al-Rubaie, who lost his son and wife in the same shooting, says he won't even meet with Ms. Butenis, who offered cash compensation on Wednesday to seven of the victims' families, including Hafidh.
Pastor Jules Vivian from an Assemblies of God Christian church in Baghdad says the Iraqi government must put an end to the "law of the jungle" when it comes to security contractors like Blackwater.
He lost Jenevia Jalal, a close friend and minister at his church, who was killed along with a female friend a few weeks after the Blackwater incident by security guards working for another private company, Unity Resources Group (URG).
In a country that has grown almost numb to daily bloodshed, those two incidents triggered widespread outrage at the hired foreign gunmen, who many Iraqis say are mercenaries with licenses to kill. The incidents were a tipping point for Baghdadis, who regularly complain they are bullied by bands of heavily armed contractors bulldozing through traffic in SUVs or armored pickup trucks.
Anywhere from 125,000 to 180,000 foreign contractors operate at any given time in Iraq. Blackwater alone has been involved in at least 195 escalation-of-force incidents since 2005.
Tension over the case continues to rise between the US Embassy and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seemingly eager to show he is standing up to Blackwater and other security firms. On Wednesday, his government issued an executive order that "cancels" legal immunity for private security groups, a move that still needs approval from Iraq's parliament.
Many Iraqis, especially the victims' families, say that the contractors should face charges in an Iraqi court. They say they are not willing to let the contractors go unpunished, despite the fact that the US government has already started the process of offering many victims' relatives compensation.
Mirembe Natongo, an Embassy spokesperson specially designated to comment on the Blackwater case, says offering to compensate families before the investigation is completed, is "standard procedure … and is not an admission of culpability."
Mr. Rubaie wrote to Mr. Maliki asking the prime minister to take up the case. "I asked the Iraqi government for justice. I said we will only be respected by others if our own government protects and values us," he says. "Justice must be served. Just the way human life is dear in their countries, we want it to be the same here."
Oversight of security firms
The pressure that is being brought by the victims' families and the Iraqi government appears to be pushing the US State Department to reconsider oversight of firms that it contracts to protect its employees. Currently they have immunity from prosecution in Iraq, a policy instituted by L. Paul Bremer, head of the former US-led occupation authority until June 2004.
The State Department director of management policy, Patrick Kennedy, who is tasked with reviewing the department's own security practices in Iraq and who was recently in Baghdad, presented Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday with a final report containing some 19 recommendations.
Mr. Kennedy told reporters Wednesday that these include formalizing the requirement, which was already put in place after the Sept. 16 shooting, of having agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security accompany each convoy and installing video recording, audio, and tracking equipment inside the vehicles.
The report also calls for tightening the rules for the use of deadly force and requiring private contractors, such as Blackwater, to undergo training to enhance their "cultural awareness" and to hire Arabic language-speaking staff.
The main point of contention between the Iraqis and the Americans is the immunity enjoyed by private contractors, a policy commonly referred to by Iraqis as Mr. Bremer's "Order 17," as it was the 17th order of his administration here.
US officials are asking Maliki to delay any action against Blackwater until the FBI completes its investigation and a recently created Iraqi-US joint commission, which met for the first time Oct. 7, reviews the results and makes recommendations on the overall status of private security companies in Iraq.
"Blackwater guards committed an unjustified crime in cold blood intended to kill as many Iraqis as possible," says Sami al-Askari, a senior adviser to Maliki. "The American side says it needs much more time … but the prime minister wants them [Blackwater] to leave now. They must leave."
The drive for justice in Iraq
Rubaie says he was urged by a State Department official he met on Saturday to put a dollar figure on his loss.
"I asked him if the price would differ if those killed were Americans," he says. "I gave him an astronomical number and insisted that I write on the form that I retain the right to file a lawsuit. My life has been shattered."
Rubaie's son, Ahmed, was reportedly the first to be shot in the Blackwater incident. He probably encountered the guards as they entered a roundabout going against traffic. They were attempting to evacuate a US diplomat caught in a nearby bombing.
Ahmed was driving his mother, a dermatologist, for errands in western Baghdad after dropping off his father, a physician specializing in blood diseases, at work. His friends remember the third-year medical student as popular and energetic, who loved soccer and singing in Spanish with his guitar band. Rubaie still aches with sorrow for his wife, Mahasen. The two were college sweethearts who met in Baghdad while in medical school. They were married soon after graduation.
For Hafidh, who lost his young son, the shooting "was a nightmare. I saw them shoot at people who were already dead over and over again."
He says the FBI paid him $3,500 a week ago in compensation for his damaged car that was being withheld for the investigation. In a previous interview with a State Department official last week, Hafidh wrote on a claims form that he wanted $15 million in total compensation, an apology from Blackwater, and assistance to leave the country with his wife and three other children.
Blackwater declined comment for this article. In an interview with CNN on Oct. 14, Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince, said he could not be subjected to Iraqi justice because there is no such thing. "In the ideal sense, we would be subject to the Iraqi law, but that would mean … there was a functioning Iraqi court system where Westerners would actually get a fair trial…. That's not the case right now."
He said Blackwater was accountable under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The US military, which conducted its own investigation, also refused comment for the article, despite having said in the past that there was no evidence that Blackwater was shot at by insurgents that day as it claims.
Susan Burke, the lead counsel in a civil suit against Blackwater filed in Washington earlier this month, says this makes it possible for the Department of Defense to file a criminal suit against the shooters and the company in America.
Ms. Burke says more plaintiffs will be joining the civil suit that was filed on behalf of families of three of the dead and a wounded person in conjunction with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
"We want the punitive damage to be high enough so they take it seriously and change their corporate culture and behavior," she said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia.
The end of a dream
Mr. Askari, Maliki's adviser, says in contrast to Blackwater's widely perceived defiance in the face of Iraqi charges of wrongdoing, the Australian-owned URG was quick to apologize for the shooting this month and offer to compensate the victims' families.
Still, the pastor at the church where Ms. Jalal served also says compensation alone is not enough.
"The main thing I want is justice," says Mr. Vivian from the backyard of the Church of New Life.
The sound of electric organs could be heard from inside the church as members of the congregation gathered for a service last week.
Friend and taxi driver Marany Awaness was driving Jalal and two of Jalal's relatives back home when they encountered URG guards who were protecting a client working on a US government-funded contract. The Australian-owned company, which is based in Dubai and registered in Singapore, said Ms. Awaness, who was killed with Jalal, failed to heed several warning signals to stop.
Vivian had known Jalal, who was in her early 30s, for 12 years when she and her two sisters joined the church. They hail from an Armenian Orthodox family. Jalal worked at the church as an accountant and was an active minister and counselor. Vivian says Jalal was like a mother to her sisters after their mother passed away a few years ago. The sisters refused to immigrate to America last year with their father.
"The dream that Jenevia had in her life was to help Iraq and its people," he says. "Her laughs and fresh spirit made you feel you were in the presence of someone who loved life and wanted to do something good for people."