World and Nation

Blackwater Role in Shooting Said To Include Chaos, Civilian Deaths

Participants in a contentious Baghdad security operation this month have told U.S. investigators that during the operation at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues urgently called for a cease-fire.

At least one guard apparently also drew a weapon on a fellow guard who did not stop shooting, a U.S. official said.

The operation, by the private firm Blackwater USA, began as a mission to evacuate senior U.S. officials after an explosion near where they were meeting, several officials said. Some officials have questioned the wisdom of evacuating the Americans from a secure compound, saying the area should instead have been locked down.

These new details of the episode on Sept. 16, in which at least eight civilians were killed, including a woman and an infant, were provided by a U.S. official who was briefed on the U.S. investigation by someone who helped conduct it, and by Americans who had spoken directly with two guards involved in the episode. Their accounts were broadly consistent.

A spokeswoman for Blackwater, Anne E. Tyrrell, said she could not confirm any of the details provided by the Americans.

The accounts provided the first glimpse into the official U.S. investigation of the shooting, which has angered Iraqi officials and prompted calls by the Iraqi government to ban Blackwater from working in Iraq, and brought new scrutiny of the widespread use of private security contractors here.

The U.S. official said that by Wednesday morning, U.S. investigators still had not responded to multiple requests for information by Iraqi officials investigating the episode. The official also said that Blackwater had been conducting its own investigation but had been ordered by the United States to stop that work. Tyrrell confirmed that the company had conducted an investigation of its own, but said, “No government entity has discouraged us from doing so.”

An Iraqi investigation had concluded that the Blackwater guards shot without provocation. But the U.S. official said that the guards have told U.S. investigators that they believed that they fired in response to enemy gunfire.

The Blackwater compound, rimmed by concrete blast walls and concertina wire in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, has been under tight control. Participants in the Sept. 16 security operation have been ordered not to speak about the episode. But word of the disagreement on the street has slowly made its way through the community of private security contractors.

The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the U.S. Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northeast of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.

A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One U.S. official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.

“It raises the first question of why didn’t they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound,” the official said. “Usually the concept would be, if an IED detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down,” he said, using the abbreviation for ‘improvised explosive device.’