The Iraqi government is suing the Blackwater security company over the 2007 slaughter of 17 civilians in a busy Baghdad intersection, Iraqi officials said today. The announcement came after a U.S. judge last week threw out criminal charges against five Blackwater guards for the deadly shooting spree.
The government "rejects the ruling issued by the American court," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday. He said his government had filed suit against the company in a U.S. court and would file a similar suit in Iraq as well.
Haider Al-Abadi, a prominent member of Parliament from Maliki's Dawa party, called the dismissal of charges "unfortunate and gross miscarriage of justice." Expressing his views via Twitter, Abadi added, "Victims have rights."
The Blackwater guards "killed Iraqis in cold blood," Dr. Mahmoud Othman, a member of Parliament from the Kurdish region, said on Twitter. The Iraqi government "should take up this case seriously with the American administration and insist on holding the trial in Iraq," he said.
"What are we - not human?" asked Abdul Wahab Adul Khader, a 34-year-old bank employee and one of at least 20 people wounded in the melee, quoted in The New York Times. "Is our blood so cheap? For America, the land of justice and law, what does it mean to let criminals go?"
The Sept. 16, 2007, incident outraged Iraq and drew worldwide condemnation. The Blackwater guards claimed they had acted in self-defense, but witnesses and victims say the guards, escorting a heavily armed convoy through Baghdad traffic, unleashed an indiscriminate, unprovoked attack.
Victims said Blackwater guards had blocked traffic at the crowded Nisour Square intersection and randomly opened fire at everything and everyone around them.
Sa'ad al-Izzi, an Iraqi journalist who was working for The Washington Post at the time, recalls that as he walked toward the square, "I noticed that each and every tree and electricity pole, and even the pavement, was riddled with bullets."
Izzi, who now works for The New York Times in Baghdad, wrote on the Times "At War" blog Jan. 1: "At the square the first thing I saw was a charred white Kia that had been carrying Dr. Mahasin Muhsin Kadhum, 46, and her 20-year-old son, Ahmed Haythem Al-Rubaei, a medical student. He was giving her a ride home from the hospital where she worked. Smoke was still coming from the car, which had been hit by at least 30 shots. According to police officers at the site, the Blackwater guards opened fire on that car, then hit it with a grenade from a grenade launcher, which set it on fire while the two were inside it."
Izzi continued, "The description we got from eyewitnesses indicated that the guards opened fire on every thing that moved. Even the traffic police booth on the square was not spared. A red double decker bus and lots of cars and people were shot, some even far distant from the square. People had run in every direction to take cover behind concrete barriers or bus stops, but it did not provide them shelter from the guns in helicopters accompanying the Blackwater trucks."
At the time of the incident, Blackwater and all other U.S. personnel in Iraq were immune from Iraqi laws under a controversial order issued by U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer in 2004.
That immunity was lifted in the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement signed in December 2008, in the waning days of the Bush administration.
It was not until then, more than a year after the shooting spree, that the U.S. Justice Department issued criminal charges against the guards. The 35-count Justice Department indictment issued Dec. 8, 2008, charged five Blackwater guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one weapons violation count.
If convicted, the men would have faced 10 years in prison for each manslaughter charge, plus additional time for the other charges.
The Iraqi government had originally wanted the Blackwater guards to face trial in Iraq, and officials said they would closely watch how the U.S. judicial system handled the case, the Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq) news agency reported.
On Friday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq had "started to take the necessary measures to bring Blackwater to justice." Previously the Iraqi government had said it would support lawsuits filed against Blackwater by families of the victims. This week, outraged over the U.S. court action, Dabbagh said the government has decided to take action itself.
Following the notoriety the company gained from the 2007 incident and others, Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services last year. The company pulled out of Iraq in May 2009, after the U.S. State Department refused to renew its contracts.
In dismissing the charges against the Blackwater guards on Dec. 31, Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina said U.S. Justice Department prosecutors had violated the guards' constitutional rights.
Iraqi journalist Izzi wrote about Blackwater's standard method of operation in Iraq: "In more normal circumstances, Blackwater had a special way of operating. When a Blackwater convoy moved through town, the first thing you would see would be bottles of water flying in the air. The gunner at the top of each Blackwater truck would be surrounded by boxes of bottled water to throw at cars. Startled drivers would open a way through the traffic. It happened to me once.
"They seemed untouchable," he wrote.
And perhaps they are. The U.S. judge relied on procedural matters to throw out the Blackwater case. It remains to be seen whether the victims or their government will have their day in court.
Photo: Khalid Ibrahim, left, visits the grave of his father, who was killed when Blackwater guards opened fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. (AP/Hadi Mizban)