Iraq incident bloodier than first reported

Questions remain, but details emerge of Blackwater guards' actions in Baghdad

October 03, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

It started out as a family errand: Ahmed Haithem Ahmed was driving his mother, Mohassin, to pick up his father at the Baghdad hospital where he was a pathologist. As they approached Nisour Square at midday Sept. 16, they did not know that a bomb had gone off nearby or that a convoy of four armored vehicles carrying Blackwater guards armed with automatic rifles was approaching.

Moments later a bullet tore through Ahmed's head, he slumped, and the car rolled forward. Then Blackwater guards responded with a barrage of gunfire and explosive weapons, leaving 17 dead and 24 wounded - a higher toll than previously thought, according to Iraqi investigators.

Interviews with 12 Iraqi witnesses, several Iraqi investigators and a U.S. official familiar with a U.S. investigation of the Sept. 16 shootings offer new insights into the gravity of the incident in Nisour Square. And they are difficult to square with the explanation offered initially by Blackwater officials that their guards were responding proportionately to an attack on the streets around the square.

The new details include:

A deadly cascade of events began when a single bullet killed an Iraqi man whose weight probably remained on the accelerator and propelled the car forward as the passenger, the man's mother, clutched him and screamed.

The car continued to roll toward the convoy, which responded with an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions.

Minutes after that shooting stopped, a Blackwater convoy - possibly the same one - moved north from the square and opened fire on another line of traffic a few hundred yards away, in a previously unreported separate incident, investigators and several witnesses say.

The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of the his vehicle. Not one witness heard or saw any gunfire coming from Iraqis around the square. And after a short initial burst of bullets, the Blackwater guards unleashed an overwhelming barrage of gunfire even as Iraqis were turning their cars around and attempting to flee.

As the gunfire continued, at least one Blackwater guard began screaming, "No! No! No!" and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting, according to an Iraqi lawyer who was stuck in traffic and was soon shot in the back as he tried to flee. The account of the struggle among the Blackwater guards corroborates preliminary findings of the U.S. investigation.

Still, while the series of events pieced together by the Iraqis might be correct, important elements could still be missing from that account, according to the U.S. official familiar with the continuing U.S. investigation into the shootings.

Among the questions still to be answered, the official said, is whether at any time during the incident nearby Iraqi security forces began firing, possibly leading the Blackwater convoy to believe they were under attack and therefore justified in returning fire. It is also possible that as the car kept rolling toward the intersection, the Blackwater guards believed it posed a threat and intensified their shooting.

But witnesses close to the places where most of the Iraqi civilians were killed directly facing the Blackwater convoy on the southern rim of the square all give a relatively consistent picture of how the shooting began and unfolded.

After the initial barrage of bullets, cars were struggling to get out of the line of fire, and many people were abandoning their vehicles altogether.

Iraqi investigators believe that during the incident, Blackwater helicopters flew overhead and fired into the cars from above.

Minutes after the first shootings, a Blackwater convoy arrived at the other side of the square, where civilian traffic was also backed up, and shot into cars, according to an Iraqi official who is a member of the investigation committee set up by the Iraqi government.

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