Iraq, Blackwater and shoes

More than a year after Blackwater USA security guards sprayed a busy Baghdad intersection with bullets, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and wounding others, the U.S. Justice Department finally filed criminal charges against the gunmen on Dec. 8.

The government action comes as U.S. authorities prepare for a new environment in Iraq starting Jan. 1. On that date, under the new U.S.-Iraq security pact, private security firms working for the U.S. military will lose their immunity from prosecution in Iraq. The Bush administration had strenuously opposed the change but Iraq insisted on it.

Under Order 17 issued by U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer two days before he left Iraq in 2004, all U.S. occupation employees, including private contractors, were given total immunity from Iraqi laws. The Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater shooting spree outraged Iraq and drew worldwide condemnation. The Iraqi government tried to revoke Blackwater's license to operate in the country. Since then, Iraq has pressed to put foreign security companies like Blackwater under Iraqi law, subject to Iraqi penalties and expulsion from the country if they commit crimes against civilians.

The 35-count Justice Department indictment charged five Blackwater guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one weapons violation count.

If convicted, the men face 10 years in prison for each manslaughter charge, plus additional time for the other charges. An arraignment is set for Jan. 6 in Washington.

A sixth Blackwater guard has pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

U.S. prosecutors and FBI officials met with victims of the shootings last week, including widows, children who lost a parent in the shootings, and men still limping from their wounds, Reuters reported.

The closed-door meeting in Baghdad took place at a police building under intense media scrutiny, with a crowd of reporters massed outside, the news agency reported.

A new sign posted outside the building read: 'Private security contractors. Slow down. Obey police directions, or you will be arrested and your company's license revoked.'

The victims say Blackwater guards blocked traffic at the intersection and randomly opened fire at everything and everyone around them.

The Iraqis expressed hope that U.S. prosecutors were on their side. 'We hope for the best ... I think the attorney is working hard. He's helping us,' said Wissam Flayeh, who was wounded in the shooting. He had been holding back a woman to prevent her from running into gunfire to the bodies of her son and husband when he was shot, the Reuters report said.

Doraid Ismail, brother of a man killed in the shooting, also said, “I have hope,” as he left the meeting.

The Iraqi victims said U.S. officials advised them not to talk to Blackwater representatives and told them the case may last a long time. In addition to the criminal case, a civil case is also planned.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department will inherit the prosecution of the cases.

North Carolina-based Blackwater USA is the largest security contractor in Iraq. Blackwater CEO Erik Prince has close ties to the Republican right. The company denies any wrongdoing.

In another legal action, an Iraqi rights group based in Jordan said Dec. 14 it has filed 200 lawsuits against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. security firms for their role in torturing Iraqi prisoners.

Ali Qeisi, head of the Society of Victims of the U.S. Occupation in Iraq, said the cases have been filed in federal courts in Virginia, Michigan and Maryland, Agence France Presse reported

'The torture was systemic, and those responsible for it should be punished and the victims should be compensated,' he said.

Last week, a bipartisan Senate report said Rumsfeld’s authorization of “aggressive interrogations” was a 'direct cause' of abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an unpublished U.S. government report being circulated in Washington says U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq were riddled with bureaucratic turf wars and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society, resulting in a 100-billion-dollar failure, The New York Times reported.

President Bush’s “surprise” trip to Iraq last week — an obvious effort to try to prettify his disastrous Iraq legacy — was yet another flop, as media around the world played and replayed videos of an Iraqi reporter hurling his shoes at Bush during a news conference and denouncing him on behalf of “the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

suewebb @ pww.org