The mass shooting in Nisour Square in Baghdad was a turning point for the U.S.-based security company Blackwater Worldwide and for the U.S. intervention in post-war Iraq as a whole. Iraq subsequently denied Blackwater a license to operate in the country, and diplomacy was strained again when the US dropped charges against the responsible men.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Nov. 23, 2010.
Blackwater trained private security contractors, thousands of whom worked for hire in post-war Iraq as bodyguards and in other paramilitary roles. While these guards generally had prior military experience, they were civilians, were not subject to military rules, and were immune from criminal prosecution while working in Iraq.
Bloomberg News reported that Blackwater contractors "were linked to 195 shooting incidents from 2005 through 2008, with them firing the first shots more than 80 percent of the time, according to a 2008 report prepared by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee." Pres. George W. Bush's lengthy memoir of his eight-year presidency published in 2010 made no mention of the security company.
The most notorious incident occurred on Sept. 16, 2007, when Blackwater guards opened fire at a busy intersection in Baghdad outside the fortified Green Zone, killing 17 civilians, including women and children, and wounding many others. The guards claimed that they were in the square to respond to a bomb threat and that they fired in self-defense. However, an Iraqi investigation found that the shooting was unprovoked and referred to the killings as "murder." Iraqis were outraged by the incident, and diplomatic relations with the United States were strained.
The US had invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein and had transferred sovereignty back to a newly formed government in 2004. Despite their formal sovereignty, Iraq was unable to prosecute the Blackwater employees, who had immunity under U.S. law.
In October 2007, a month after the shooting in Nisour Square, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act (H.R. 2740) which would have made U.S. security contractors in Iraq subject to U.S. criminal law; however, the Senate never voted on it. Instead, the "Status of Forces Agreement" between the two countries in December 2008 made the contractors subject to Iraqi criminal law.
An FBI investigation found that 14 of the 17 killings were unjustified. Former Blackwater guards Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nick Slatten, and Paul Slough surrendered to the FBI in December 2008, each facing 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one count of using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime. These men, all military veterans in their 20s, pled not guilty. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, had already pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter, attempt to commit murder and aiding and abetting, and had agreed to testify against the other five. It was the Dept. of Justice's first prosecution of personnel hired by the Dept. of Defense, which is permitted under a 2004 amendment to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.
The company Blackwater itself faced no charges. However, in January 2009, Iraq denied Blackwater Worldwide a license to operate in the country, citing the shooting in Nisour Square. As the incident had damaged Blackwater's reputation, the company re-branded itself Xe (pronounced "zee") the next month. That summer, Blackwater ceased providing services in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
A federal judge dismissed the manslaughter charges against the five guards in December 2009. In a 90-page ruling, he said that federal prosecutors had violated the men's Fifth Amendment rights by coercing them to make statements under the threat of the loss of their jobs. Iraq was scandalized by the dismissal of the charges. On Jan. 1, 2010, Iraq announced it would sue the five guards. Additionally, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told CNN on Jan. 3 that the government wanted to expel from the country anyone who had ever worked for Blackwater and did not intend to inform or consult the U.S. Embassy on this decision. Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as overseer of Iraq policy, quickly promised Iraqi leaders that the US would appeal the court's decision in the Nisour Square case.
In June 2010, Blackwater's billionaire founder Erik Prince was said to be seeking a buyer for the company. The company was purchased later that year and was rebranded "Academi". In June 2014, it merged with Triple Canopy; the resulting company is called "Constellis Holdings".
On December 22, 2020, President Trump pardoned Slatten, Slough, Liberty, and Heard.
"Iraq denies Blackwater an operating license." CNN. Jan. 29, 2009.
"US contractor departs Baghdad." Kim Gamel. AP. May 8, 2009.
"Charges dismissed against Iraq contractors." CNN. Dec. 31, 2009.
"Iraq to sue ex-Blackwater guards." CNN. Jan. 1, 2010.
"Iraq spokesman: Ex-Blackwater employees not wanted in Iraq." CNN. Jan. 3, 2010.
"U.S. to appeal Blackwater case dismissal, Biden says." Anthony Shadid. New York Times. Jan. 23, 2010.
"Blackwater founder Erik Prince plans sale of security company." Gopal Ratnam and Timothy R. Homan. Bloomberg. June 7, 2010.
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