Witnesses cast doubt on Blackwater story

Kurds observed shooting from roof, say no gunfire provoked attack by contractors

October 13, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD -- Fresh accounts of the Blackwater shooting last month, given by three rooftop witnesses and by U.S. soldiers who arrived shortly after the gunfire ended, cast new doubt yesterday on statements by Blackwater guards that they were responding to armed insurgents when Iraqi investigators say 17 Iraqis were killed at a Baghdad intersection last week.

The three witnesses, Kurds on a rooftop overlooking the scene, said they observed no gunfire that could have provoked the shooting by Blackwater guards, and U.S. soldiers who arrived minutes later found shell casings from guns normally used by American contractors, as well as the U.S. military.

The Kurdish witnesses are important because they had the advantage of an unobstructed view and because they said they observed the shooting at Nisoor Square from start to finish, free from the terror and confusion that might have clouded accounts of witnesses at street level. Moreover, because they are pro-American, their accounts have a credibility not always extended to Iraqi Arabs, who have been more hostile to the U.S. presence.

Their statements, made in interviews with The New York Times, appeared to challenge a State Department account that a Blackwater vehicle had been disabled in the shooting and had to be towed away. Since those initial accounts, Blackwater and the State Department have consistently refused to comment on the substance of the case.

The Kurdish witnesses said that they observed no one firing at the guards at any time during the event, an observation corroborated by the forensic evidence of the shell casings. Two of the witnesses also said all the Blackwater vehicles involved in the shooting drove away under their own power.

The Kurds, who work for a political party whose building looks directly down on the square, said they had looked for any evidence that the American security guards were responding to an attack but found none.

"I call it a massacre," said Omar H. Waso, one of the witnesses and a senior official of the party, which is called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "It is illegal. They used the law of the jungle."

While Blackwater has said its guards were attacked by automatic gunfire, the soldiers did not find any casings from the sort of guns typically used by insurgents or by Iraqi security forces, according to a U.S. military official briefed on the findings of the unit that arrived at the scene about 20 minutes after the Blackwater convoy left. That analysis of forensic evidence at the scene was first reported yesterday by The Washington Post.

The U.S. military official, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, added that soldiers found clear evidence that the Blackwater guards had not been threatened and had opened fire on civilians who tried to flee the scene.

None of the roughly two dozen witnesses previously interviewed by Iraqi investigators said that they saw or heard anyone but the Blackwater guards fire during the shooting, which Iraq officials say killed 17 and wounded 27.

The Kurdish witnesses on the rooftop said they had not been interviewed by Iraqi investigators. They said they had been visited, but not yet fully interviewed, by U.S. investigators.

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