In Baghdad, Victims of Blackwater's Nisour Square Bloodbath Want Justice, Not Money
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Iraqis are pressing their government to obtain legal redress against five former employees of private security firm Blackwater who are accused of killing civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
In a statement to reporters on January 4, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his government had filed a lawsuit against the security firm in the United States and would shortly be doing so under the Iraqi legal system as well, after a US court dropped charges against the five men.
Baghdad had earlier called the court's decision "unacceptable and unfair".
On December 31, the District of Columbia circuit court threw out charges from the US Justice Department against the former Blackwater employees in relation to the deaths of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and injuries sustained by at least 18 others.
The security firm insists that its staff members acted in self-defence after they were attacked with firearms and improvised explosive devices while escorting a US State Department vehicle. Iraqi officials insist the shooting, at a busy urban intersection, was indiscriminate and unprovoked.
The shooting sparked furious protests from the Iraqi government at the time and forced Washington to rethink its links with security contractors, whose role in fulfilling paramilitary functions in Iraq was becoming increasingly controversial.
People who were wounded or lost relatives in the attack, which became known in Iraq as the Nisour Square Massacre, were stunned by the US court ruling and say they must now hope that their own government will pursue justice.
"We did place hope in the American court system, but this has really shocked and disappointed me. I think the decision is unfair and I don't know why the court issued it," said Haider Ahmed, 35, a taxi driver who was shot twice by Blackwater guards during the incident.
"The Blackwater workers must pay for their mistakes. They killed and wounded people when we'd done did nothing to them."
He added, "I've heard the strong denouncement from our government. Now I hope it's going to do something."
The decision by US federal judge Ricardo Urbina to dismiss charges of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and weapons violations was based on concerns that the constitutional rights of the accused were under threat. US prosecutors had access to statements that the individuals involved were required to give to the State Department at the time, and use of this testimony or potentially incriminating information drawn from it would have violated their rights.
Blackwater, now Xe Services, ended its Iraq operations last May when the US government did not renew its contract.
Like many Iraqis, Ahmed is outraged that from 2003 to 2009, guards employed by foreign private security firms like Blackwater enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Iraq if their actions were part of protecting US citizens.
He remains skeptical of the chances of successful legal action.
"I never considered filing a case against Blackwater, nor did I even try to meet an Iraqi official, because I don't believe that Americans will ever be punished for killing Iraqis," he told IWPR. "We are under their occupation, and we are at their mercy."
In his own case, Ahmed says Blackwater paid him 3,500 US dollars for the destruction of his vehicle, but says the money went on his medical bills and in any case was worth far less than the true value of his car.
Details of the US lawsuit referred to by Prime Minister Maliki, who faces a tough re-election bid in March, have not yet been made public. The government has already made it clear that it will support any private lawsuit filed in a US court by victims of the Blackwater shootings or their relatives.
By January 5, the day after Maliki's statement, members of Iraq's parliament were already urging the administration to step up legal pressure on Blackwater.
Sofia al-Suhail, a member of parliament with the Iraq Coalition List, called on the government to sue Blackwater on three separate counts - for the murder of Iraqi civilians, for perjury, and in pursuit of adequate financial compensation for the victims.
Despite its tough talk, the Iraqi government is likely to find it difficult to win a court action against a well-heeled company like Blackwater.
"I don't think that prosecuting Blackwater is realistic," said Tariq al-Harb, head of Iraq's Legal Culture Society. "For one thing, there aren't many circumstances where America will turn over its citizens…. Secondly, you can't ask the US government for compensation, because Blackwater was a private company."
Harb believes the only way the Iraqi government can help the victims is by applying diplomatic pressure and pushing the justice ministry to explore other solutions.
That will be little consolation for relatives like Athraa Saeed, a mother of six whose husband was killed on Nisour Square. Her family said that when the news that the case against the five former Blackwater employees was announced on television, she fainted.
"Do you know how a widow with six young orphans lives? I am a poor woman with no husband and six children who need their father. We need money, we need everything," Saeed told IWPR before breaking down in tears.
Saeed's brother Yaqub Saeed, who rushed home to tend his sister when she passed out, said what his family needed was justice, not money.
"My sister and all of my family want nothing. We do not want compensation. We want our government to have the [perpetrators] punished," he said. "We want to see them in jail - it isn't fair they should enjoy their lives while the victims, innocent people, lie buried in the ground."