Iraqis tell of guards’ reckless behavior
The young biology student pulled his car to the side of the busy traffic circle when he saw a fast-moving line of SUVs approaching from behind. As they flew past, he recalls, the lead vehicle appeared to intentionally smash into his sedan. But the worst was yet to come.
As the convoy sped off, a gunner inside the last sport utility vehicle sprayed the traffic circle with bullets. Pedestrians ran for cover. Seated in the car closest to the SUV, student Ali Karem Fakhri Hilal thrust his hands into the air to show he was unarmed.
But four cars behind him, Hussein Salih Mohammed Rabee, a retired businessman active in a local peace committee, was fatally wounded.
Nearly two months after the Aug. 13 shooting in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, nobody has been held accountable for Rabee’s death. His sons say the provincial police commander and a U.S. Army officer told them that Blackwater USA, the same company accused of killing as many as 17 Iraqis at a Baghdad traffic circle Sept. 16, was responsible. Hillah residents held a protest outside the office of an American nongovernmental agency known to use Blackwater guards, waving banners and demanding Blackwater be brought to justice.
But like most Iraqis affected by shootings involving private security firms, Rabee’s relatives have hit the shield that protects the companies. It is almost impossible for Iraqis to prove who did the shooting; even if they can, the security firms claim immunity from prosecution.
The Rabee family’s story shows the futility of trying to press charges against foreign companies, which have been accused of causing scores of deaths and injuries in Iraq. They operate with virtual impunity as they tear through crowded city streets. The unmarked convoys push slow-moving vehicles out of their way, fire at anyone who is perceived as a threat, and make it clear their priority is to protect their high-profile wards.
Blackwater, which guards State Department officials, the U.S. ambassador and others, has a perfect record in that regard. It has not lost a client in Iraq.
“This company killed my father and left him on the street,” said one of Rabee’s sons, Bahaa Hussein Salih Rabee, the head of the physics department at Babil University in Hillah.
He and another brother, Safa, a businessman living in Britain, say that they met with the provincial police commander, Brig. Gen. Qais Hamza Mamouri, and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Thomas Roth days after Rabee’s death. Both expressed their condolences, but explained there was nothing they could do because of Blackwater’s immunity.
“I said why? He was innocent,” Safa Rabee said by telephone Friday, his voice still shaking with rage as he discussed his father’s death. “He was everything to me and to my family.”
Mamouri denied telling the family that Blackwater was involved.
Roth did not respond directly to questions. However, his public relations officer, Maj. Dave Butler of the Army’s 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, said in an e-mail response, “Based on Blackwater’s ongoing investigation, we cannot comment on any incidents allegedly involving Blackwater.”
Memos prepared for last week’s U.S. congressional hearings into Blackwater, and based on company and State Department reports, say the three security firms under State Department contract in Iraq -- Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp International -- were involved in at least 306 shootings between Jan. 1, 2005, and April 20, 2007. Blackwater was involved in 168, DynCorp, 102, and Triple Canopy, 36.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell did not respond to e-mail and telephone queries about the Aug. 13, 2007, incident, which was not cited in the memos.
Two other events in Hillah were mentioned, including one on June 25, 2005, that left an Iraqi man, a father of six, dead. In that case, the Blackwater guards involved did not report the shooting and tried to cover it up, according to copies of e-mail communications at the time. The State Department recommended that Blackwater pay the bereaved family $5,000 in compensation.
Mamouri said that because of the company’s high profile, Hillah residents assume that if there is a problem with a private security convoy it must be Blackwater.
But Safa Rabee, who flew to Iraq immediately after the shooting, said he hadn’t heard of Blackwater until Mamouri mentioned it after his father’s death. He said he took note of the name to research it on the Internet.
One State Department employee in Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said most Blackwater guards were well-behaved and simply doing the job they were hired to do: protect clients in a dangerous environment. Their duties “are not conducive to keeping everyone alive,” said the official, but that does not make all Blackwater guards demons.
“They’re getting this bad rap for being the guys from the Wild, Wild West.”
For Iraqis, that reputation was sealed by the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad. Blackwater guards say they fired in self-defense, but Iraqi witnesses say the barrage of gunfire was unprovoked and typical of security companies’ actions when slowed by heavy traffic.
Some Washington lawmakers are pushing legislation that would force contractors to answer to U.S. laws when operating overseas, but that won’t help people such as the Rabees, or the family of Iraqi police Lt. Qusay Adil Jabir. Luay Adil Jabir says his brother Qusay was killed in June 2006 in Hillah after a convoy of SUVs fired on the marked police truck he was in.
The driver lost control, sending the truck rolling over into oncoming traffic. The crash, not the gunfire, killed Jabir. His brother says the family never learned which private security company was to blame.
“Of course, I’m mad,” he said. “If it was a civilian car, maybe they might have had a reason to be suspicious of it, but it was a marked, blue and white police vehicle.”
Rabee’s family is equally bewildered and bitter. Rabee, 72, had retired a year earlier. His sons provided a copy of the ID card he carried from a peace committee on which he was serving.
Official documents and witness accounts say the shooting took place about 12:30 p.m. Traffic was moving slowly around the downtown traffic circle, but drivers pulled over when they saw the SUVs. They knew better than to get in the way of the convoys that frequently streaked through town, said Hilal, the biology student.
Hilal, 23, said the first SUV drove straight at him, hit his car, and then moved on.
“There was space enough for him to pass,” Hilal said. “There was no reason for him to be suspicious of me.”
He said he had seen such convoys fire into the air to disperse crowds, but never fire directly at cars and people as this one did.
When the shooting stopped and the convoy disappeared, people rushed toward Rabee, who had opened his car door and was slumped in the street. Blood poured from his left leg.
Bahaa Rabee rushed to his father’s side after the hospital telephoned him. Even as he lay dying, Rabee was able to give a statement to police in which he described feeling bullets pelting his car. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I want to file a complaint.”
A forensic report says he died of a gunshot wound. Burn marks on his chest show that doctors tried to revive him using a defibrillator.
Safa Rabee says the U.S. military offered him and his family financial compensation, but they do not want money. “I said, do you think $100 million can return my father? Do you think that can help?” he recalled telling the Army officer.
Hilal said the repairs to his car cost $3,500, but he also is not concerned about compensation.
“The most important thing is that justice be done, because an innocent man lost his life,” he said.
A special correspondent in Hillah contributed to this report.