The recent attacks by Blackwater USA mercenaries in Baghdad are far from the first – and many believe they will not be the last.
Seventeen Iraqis were killed Sep. 16, and another 27 wounded at Nisoor square in western Baghdad when mercenaries from the company opened fire on them. Dozens of witnesses said that, contrary to Blackwater claims, the mercenaries had not come under attack.
Several Kurds who were at the scene said they saw no one firing at the mercenaries at any time, an observation corroborated by forensic evidence. Kurds are one ethnic group that has been supportive of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Kurd witnesses work for a political party whose building looks directly down on the square where the bloodshed occurred.
"I call it a massacre," Omar H. Waso, a senior official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan told reporters. "It is illegal. They used the law of the jungle."
"Some of the victims were Iraqis who were close to the government," an eyewitness speaking on condition of anonymity told IPS. "There was a notable fuss about five or six bodies in particular when the ministry of interior's inspectors arrived on the scene."
The history of western mercenary companies, often referred to as "security contractors", is full of such stories.
"They killed my young neighbour Sinan in cold blood," a 32-year-old using the name Ibrahim Obeidy told IPS. "They have killed so many Iraqis, and no one can even ask them why."
"Iraqis in Anbar province (to the west of Baghdad) have always said that strange-looking forces have conducted executions in cold blood," Abdul-Sattar Ahmed, a lawyer from province capital Ramadi told IPS. "Groups of men in civilian outfits, but in armoured vehicles and sometimes helicopters, have carried out the most mysterious executions. They seldom arrest, they prefer to kill."
Salih Aziz who works with the Iraqi Group for Human Rights, an NGO in Baghdad, told IPS that Blackwater convoys, which usually comprise several large, white SUVs, have proven deadly for Iraqi civilians since the early months of the occupation in March 2003.
"Since the very beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Baghdad streets have seen peculiar looking groups of men in armoured cars with black glasses, killing anyone who approached them," said Aziz. "They were the first to be hated by Iraqis."
Blackwater USA came to international attention when four of their mercenaries were killed in Fallujah Mar. 31, 2004. The incident led to two brutal U.S. military sieges of the city.
The November siege of that year left approximately 70 percent of the city destroyed. Tens of thousands of residents remain refugees to this day.
"It is all about business and money making," Malik Nizar, a 50-year-old businessman in Baghdad told IPS. "Top corporate officials, like the CEO of Blackwater, Erik Prince, are making billions of dollars out of security contracts in Iraq, and they would not give it up for the world."
Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill is author of the best-selling book, 'Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army'. "From documents I obtained, it is clear that Blackwater has been contracted for some 750 million dollars in private armed security services for the U.S. State Department alone," Scahill told IPS in a telephone interview.
"The extent of its total U.S. contracts worldwide in unknown, as Blackwater also does covert work for the government, and its overt work is shrouded in secrecy and layers of bureaucratic protection."
Scahill said that while Blackwater is now under increased scrutiny, it is continuing to win lucrative contracts in Washington.
"These include a recent 92 million dollar Pentagon contract to operate flights in Central Asia, as well as a share of a whopping 15 billion dollar contract to fight the so-called war on drugs," Scahill told IPS. "Even if Blackwater loses its overt Iraq contract, this company will continue to make a killing off the U.S. taxpayers."
The political fallout from the incident in Baghdad last month has led the Iraqi government to accept the findings of an Iraqi investigative committee that Blackwater guards are guilty of the killings, and that they acted without provocation.
The Iraqi investigators said Blackwater should be expelled from the country, and demanded eight million dollars compensation for the family of each victim. Officials decided last week to establish a committee to find ways to repeal a 2004 directive issued by L. Paul Bremer, head of the former U.S. occupation government in Iraq, which placed private security companies outside Iraqi law, making them immune to prosecution.
Many Iraqis are angry that Blackwater enjoys special rights.
"I was shot at while driving my car in Baghdad in December 2004," Saad Mohammad Saed, an NGO worker in Baghdad told IPS. "I recognised the vehicles to be with a private security company. My car was destroyed and my survival was a miracle, but when I went to court to file charges, they told me they could not question those people." While it could not be verified that this incident involved Blackwater personnel, there is deep public anger with the company.
Such incidents continue. Two Iraqi women were killed in Baghdad last week. Maro Bougos and Jenna Jalal were driving in a white Oldsmobile when they were shot dead by men from a private security convoy. Three children in the back seat survived.
"Will (U.S. President George) Bush or (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) al-Maliki or any politician look after my sister's children after bringing death to their mother?" said Bougos's brother, who was at the scene of the attack.
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)