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‘Wall of silence’ protects security contractor in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Habib Sadr was sitting at his desk when the shots rang out. A sniper had just shot three security guards outside his office at the government-run Iraqi Media Network.

With the fatally wounded guards lying by their checkpoint, a security convoy rolled into the neighboring Justice Ministry compound. Sadr believed the sniper was with them. The incident, he said, was a brutal introduction into the world of private security contractors.

An internal investigation by Sadr’s department found that Blackwater USA was responsible. But seven months after the Feb. 7 shootings no one has been charged.

“We discovered it was Blackwater who did this thing. They fired at our martyrs without any reason. They didn’t do anything. They were just standing at their checkpoint. Everyone knows this is the site of the Iraqi Media Network,” said Sadr, who is head of Iraqi state media.

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“It’s a strange thing. Animals get killed and gain more attention. Here we have human lives lost. We respect the laws, we filed the case, I was keen to take the thing through the official channels.”

A U.S. diplomat confirmed that Blackwater guards carried out the shooting, but said he did not know the results of the State Department security office’s inquiry. He raised concerns that the investigation into the North Carolina-based firm was being conducted in too secretive a manner.

“Because they are security, everything was a big secret,” the official said, on condition of anonymity, referring to the relationship between the U.S. Embassy’s security office and Blackwater. “They draw the wagon circle. They protect each other. They look out for each other. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, that wall of silence. When it protects the guilty, that is definitely not a good thing.”

The death of the media network guards was one of several shootings that have damaged the contractor’s reputation among Iraqis and some U.S. diplomats. The latest incident, Sunday’s fatal shooting of 11 Iraqis by a Blackwater security detail in west Baghdad, has forced the U.S. Embassy to agree to an unprecedented review of private security companies and the embassy’s oversight of such contractors.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Wednesday blamed Blackwater for six other shootings since the firm was hired in 2003, and demanded that the security firm be replaced. The U.S. Embassy has said it will await the outcome of an investigation.

Blackwater and American officials have disputed the Iraqi findings on Sunday’s shooting, saying Blackwater guards came under fire as they were protecting State Department officials.

“The [guards’] convoy came under attack, and there was defensive fire as a result of that,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday. Blackwater has not responded to Maliki’s allegations about the six other shootings.

One contentious item to be studied is the immunity shielding security contractors and U.S. employees from Iraqi courts, which was granted by this nation’s former U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, in June 2004, the day before Iraq regained its sovereignty.

“It is a good time now to look at the whole concept of the . . . personal security details’ operations here, the whole framework, what are the expectations, what are the standards. These are issues we are going to be looking at closely in the coming weeks,” said Mirembe Nantongo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy.

Blackwater has long operated off the U.S. military’s radar, answering instead to the embassy’s security staff. Military officials express resentment at what they view as renegade behavior by private security contractors, including running Iraqis off the road, throwing water bottles and a quick trigger finger. “We pay for their indiscretions every day,” one U.S. officer said on condition of anonymity.

The view from the Iraqi police is no better. “They don’t have car licenses. They don’t have any names. Nobody knows who they are. If they are asked, anyway, they bully people,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf.

In July, a Blackwater convoy traded fire with guards at the Interior Ministry, killing five policemen and wounding eight others, a ministry official told The Times on condition of anonymity.

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Hassan Jabbar Salman, 45, was driving his car by Nisoor Square in the Mansour district Sunday when the Blackwater convoy opened fire. Trapped at the traffic circle, Salman sat helplessly as bullets flew. Four of them entered his back, one piercing his left lung above his heart.

“I knew that those were Blackwater’s vehicles. I know them very well. They shot my son . . . on July 17, 2005, and I have a court case against them since then,” Salman said by telephone from his hospital bed.

The case has languished, and his son still has not completely recovered, he said.

“I now have two experiences with this company,” he said. “I think all members of this company are criminals who were taken from American prisons.”

The Salmans were lucky in some respects. They survived to ask questions. On Feb. 4, 2007, days before the Interior Ministry guards were killed, Suhad Shakir, 37, employed by the U.S. military, was driving toward the Green Zone at 9 p.m. “There was . . . a convoy of SUVs, I think of U.S. contractors. They were driving in the main road. The girl drove her car behind them but very close, so one car in the convoy shot at her six times and left,” said Abu Haidar, a witness who owns a kiosk in the area.

Suhad’s father, Shakir Ismail, a retired psychologist, is still devastated. Suhad Shakir had worked as an anchor on an English-language news program before she took a job with the Iraqi Assistance Center, which helps the U.S. military coordinate medical services, track detainees and provide compensation for Iraqis. Ismail said he spoke with her American boss, whom he identified as Col. Karl, after her death. He said the American told him the shooting was a mistake. “ ‘We know Suhad very well, she was our friend, she was killed in the wrong place, in the wrong way! We feel very sorry for her,’ ” Ismail recalled Karl saying.

Ismail can’t be certain Blackwater was behind his daughter’s death, but in his mind it remains the likely culprit.

Recently weakened by a heart attack, Ismail remains at home, grieving his loss. “I encouraged her since her childhood to choose the way she likes to live, to choose what kind of personality she wants, what kind of education. She loved all people in the whole world. She loved peace. She was sympathizing . . . with the American soldiers.”

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Ismail had encouraged his children to learn English, but wants nothing to do with the United States. “They said first they came to establish democracy in the country, but instead we are see the killing of innocents and we have to keep silent,” he said. “This is not acceptable. Such acts must not be done.”

Some wonder whether any investigation will resolve Sunday’s shooting or the other cases allegedly involving Blackwater.

The embassy’s security staff will participate with Iraqis in a review of the incident. Although it is standard procedure for the security staff to investigate such cases, a U.S. diplomat suggested that the staff’s close relationship with Blackwater gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“We are at cross purposes, saying, ‘We want to rebuild your country.’ On the other hand, you have this thing going on,” the diplomat said. “At some point you ask, ‘Why am I here?’ For every step forward, there is two steps back.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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