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2007-12-19

TV BROADCAST EXCLUSIVE: Iraqi Witnesses, Victims Describe Blackwater Shooting in Harrowing Detail

Topics

Guests

Susan Burke, part of the legal team that sued Blackwater for killing civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad on September 16th. She recently returned from Istanbul where she interviewed witnesses and victims of the shooting.

Jennifer Daskal, counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. She just wrote an article in Salon.com about interviewing witnesses and victims of the September 16th shootings. Its called "Blackwater in Baghdad: It was a horror Movie"

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Democracy Now! broadcasts, for the first time on television, graphic new details about Blackwater’s Sept. 16th shooting in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. We hear from three Iraqis who were caught up in the attack: a traffic policeman who witnessed the shootings up close and tried to help the victims, a computer technician on his way to buy a gift who was shot in the arm, and a doctor whose wife and son were shot and burned to death in the attack. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Susan Burke. She has filed a lawsuit today — is filing a lawsuit again against Blackwater for an attack that happened a week before the infamous Nisoor Square attack on September 16. And now, graphic new details about that attack on September 16 in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. The legal team suing Blackwater has conducted a series of extensive interviews with witnesses and victims of the shooting.

Today, we’re going to hear and see three Iraqis who were caught up in the attack: a traffic guard who witnessed the shootings and tried his best to help the victims; a computer technician on his way to buy a gift, who was shot in the arm; and a doctor whose wife and son were shot and burned to death in the attack. Their stories stand in stark contrast to Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince’s congressional testimony on October 2nd. This is Democratic Congressmember Danny Davis questioning Erik Prince.

    REP. DANNY DAVIS: You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don’t you?

    ERIK PRINCE: No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there has been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the package — they’re trying to get away from danger. There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents. Yes, this is war. You know, since 2005, we have conducted in excess of 16,000 missions in Iraq and 195 incidences with weapons discharge. In that time, did a ricochet hurt or kill an innocent person? That’s entirely possible. Again, we do not have the luxury of staying behind to do that terrorist crime scene investigation to figure out what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We invited Blackwater on Democracy Now! today to respond to the allegations in the interviews with witnesses and victims of the September 16th shooting; they declined.

Susan Burke, today, we’re going to play for the first time on television the video that you did when you went to Istanbul to meet with the people who were victims or eyewitnesses. Describe how you met them, the scene. And we’re going to go first to the traffic guard.

SUSAN BURKE: Certainly. We flew over, and we flew out from Baghdad this group of five people. And then, I had with me Keith Roman, our investigator, who had the video equipment. And we rented a room in a hotel, brought in some translators that we have worked with in the past, and conducted an extensive interview in order to try to pin down the precise details of what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: The first witness we’re going to watch and hear from is Ali Khalaf Salman. He started working as a traffic guard in Nisoor Square in 2004. On the morning of September 16, he was directing the flow of traffic in the square as usual, when he spotted four large all-terrain vehicles with guns mounted on top approaching the intersection. Salman did what he usually does whenever a security convoy approaches: he stopped civilian traffic to clear a path for the convoy.

In painstaking detail, Salman goes on to describe how the Blackwater shooting unfolded, including the opening shots that killed a mother and her son. Ali Khalaf Salman is being translated in the interview. You’ll also hear Susan Burke, our guest today, questioning him from time to time. These are highlights of his description, beginning with how the four Blackwater vehicles entered Nisoor Square.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] OK, he said: They stopped in a semicircle.

    SUSAN BURKE: They...

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] The cars. One was right here, and one here, one here, one here, in a semicircle.

    SUSAN BURKE: So all four were in the actual round part of the square?

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Yes, yes. OK, he said: The man in the third car started firing his gun towards this direction, the Yarmouk direction, and he fired three to four shots randomly.

    SUSAN BURKE: What did that man look like?

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] He was big, big mustache.

    SUSAN BURKE: Mustache. Strong.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] He was white. He said: Actually, he was facing the convoy. When he started shooting, I turned my back to see if there are anybody moved from the traffic towards the — he was trying to make sure that nobody was moving, actually.

    SUSAN BURKE: So he turned to see if a movement had provoked the shooting?

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Yes, exactly.

    SUSAN BURKE: OK.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] As you just said, he thought that he was shooting above the car level, but when he turned his face towards traffic, he heard this woman crying, “My son! My son!” And then he ran into that direction, and he saw her son, who was a medical student. He was all covered in blood. He said he went — when he heard the woman crying, he went towards that direction, and he tried to help the medical student who was covered in blood, help him out of the car. But the mother inside was holding tight to her son. And he raised his hand to stop —

    SUSAN BURKE: Stop the shooting.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Stop the shooting. He was telling them, “Don’t shoot, please.” He said, while he raised his hand and asking them not to shoot, this time the man in the fourth car shot the mother dead. A machine gun. He said, the car was number four in line. And then, when the person in car number four, a security man, started shooting, he shot the mother dead. And the cars in front of this car, the civilian cars, actually, they spread around to the sides. I think they were scared.

    And he said the doctor’s car was an automatic car. Because he died behind the wheel, the car started moving by itself, because it was an automatic car, towards the square. And at this moment, they started shooting the car with big machine guns, and the car exploded.

    He says, when they started moving to this sides, actually he had backed up here, and there was heavy shooting randomly. So at that time, he said, the situation was so chaotic that I couldn’t really tell who actually did what. And he went behind the booth, and he was hiding there. And they shot at him three times, hitting the traffic light and the door behind which he was hiding. He was hiding behind the booth. They shot at him three times. And then he moved from here. He ran into this area. He crossed the street, actually. And here, there’s a little tiny hill. He hid behind that, and he could peek, and he could see that first car was shooting at this direction. There was a red bus.

    SUSAN BURKE: [inaudible] Abu Ghraib Street, OK.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Yes. There was a big red bus and two minibuses. And the first car was shooting at this direction.

    SUSAN BURKE: At the cars.

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] At the cars. When they started shooting from the first car at the bus and the minibuses, the people got out of the bus through the windows. They jumped out, actually, and they started running and hiding behind the same hill as him. He said he actually advised people to go through this street here between this residential area and this building and get away from the shooting. He said people were crying, people were running around, people were injured. And it was so chaotic. He said, after a while, they were shooting from the helicopter towards this area.

    SUSAN BURKE: How long did the heavy shooting go on?

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Between fifteen to twenty minutes.

    SUSAN BURKE: When they drove away, what happened next?

    ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] They threw smoke bombs here. He said they were colorful, green and all colors. And then they started driving this way. But while driving, they were shooting everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Khalaf Salman, the traffic guard, describing the infamous Blackwater attack on September 16th in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. When we come back from the break, we will go to Dr. Jawad, who lost both his wife and son, part of which we just heard a description of. And we’ll continue to talk with the lawyer who’s bringing suit against Blackwater and a representative of Human Rights Watch, who also participated in these interviews. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we bring you this exclusive today, what you just saw, Ali Khalaf Salman, on television is a TV broadcast exclusive, the first time this testimony has been aired on television in the United States, the traffic guard describing the infamous Blackwater attack on September 16th in Baghdad.

Next up, we’re going to hear from Dr. Jawad, describing what happened to his wife and his son, both killed in this attack.

Susan Burke, our guest, she is the lead attorney in the Blackwater lawsuits. Today, we’re breaking that Blackwater has been sued again. Susan Burke is working with the Center for Constitutional Rights. But before we go onto the doctor, Susan Burke, describe the significance of the testimony that we just watched and heard.

SUSAN BURKE: Well, what’s incredibly key about it is that you had a gentleman who’s a trained observer — he’s a traffic guard — he was right in the center of all the activity, and he is able to testify with precise detail about when the shooting started. And so, what he puts to rest is this contention of Blackwater’s that somehow they were under attack. He testifies very clearly that it was Blackwater’s shooting that killed the young medical student in the car. The car was not moving. It was stopped. And so, it was a completely unprovoked attack. So we are very fortunate that he is brave and willing to come forward and testify so precisely. He was right in the middle. He was physically right in the middle of the activity.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s now go to Dr. Jawad, who lost both his wife, Mohasin, and his son, Ahmed, on September 16th. It was their deaths that traffic guard Ali Khalaf Salman witnessed and tried to stop. In this excerpt, we hear Dr. Jawad describing how he came to learn of what had happened to his family. He had been waiting that day for his wife and son to pick him up from work. When he returned home alone that afternoon, he was worried not to find them there. He finally began to make calls to try and track them down. Dr. Jawad is being translated from the Arabic.

    DR. JAWAD: [translated] I called somebody in the Yarmouk neighborhood, and I asked if there were any kind of incidents on that day in that neighborhood. He told me that there are American soldiers in the neighborhood everywhere. About 5:00 p.m., I called my brother, Dr. Raed [phon.]. He was in his private clinic. He left his private clinic, and he went to the Yarmouk hospital. They searched into the room, the emergency room, surgical room. They didn’t find them. And then they went to the operation room. They were looking for Mohasin and Ahmed. That was almost a very usual procedure. If somebody is late, then that’s the first place you go and look for a person in Iraq. But he checked in the list name, the names on the list, and he didn’t find their names.

    He went to the morgue, and the person who was responsible for the morgue told him that they received sixteen bodies as casualties from the incident that day. They were all identified, identifiable, except for two. Two bodies completely burnt and [inaudible]. They were put in black plastic bags.

    My brother, on that day, in the morning, he was in the hospital, and he heard the shots, and he heard helicopters and shooting from helicopters. It was a battle, a fight, a war. And, of course, it didn’t occur to him that my wife and my son were the victims — among the victims of the incident. My wife jaw, what remained from his head is only the jaws and part of the neck. I identified her from the dental bridge, has a lot of dental bridge. And my son, what remained from his clothes was only part of the shoes and socks.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jawad, describing his wife and his son. They were killed in the Blackwater attack on September 16th in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. We turn now to Dr. Jawad describing how State Department officials in Iraq tried to offer him money to compensate him for his loss.

    DR. JAWAD: [translated] Then he said there was a question that he had to ask me: How much money would you like as compensation for the loss of the lives? But there was an interpreter, and the interpreter abruptly, immediately said to him, “Their lives are priceless.” “You have to give me an amount, dollar amount.” I told him, “I can’t give you an amount.”

    A few days later, about — this was on Saturday, I guess, October 20. Three days later, four days later, that was, I guess, on Wednesday, next Wednesday, they wanted me to attend at the State Department, at the embassy, just to come for the condolence. I was really busy. Some people, about seven or eight people, went to that meeting in the embassy. And they told me that they were given $10,000 each for their loss, for the lives of the [inaudible]. And they signed on papers written in English, although they did not know English. And the amount of money paid was not clear. The purpose of the payment was not really clear, whether it was compensation or something else. I was disgusted when I heard this news.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jawad. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. He is describing being offered money by the US government in Iraq.

Our guests are Susan Burke, who is lead counsel on the Blackwater lawsuit, working with the Center for Constitutional Rights; we’re also joined by Jennifer Daskal. She’s the counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. She’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Talk about the significance of Dr. Jawad’s testimony, both his testimony, Jennifer, and also talking about trying — talking about his experience being offered money.

JENNIFER DASKAL: Well, his testimony just highlights the complete tragedy of what happened here: two lives destroyed, two innocent lives destroyed, based on unprovoked or what appear to be — very clearly appear to be unprovoked shooting by Blackwater. And the tragedy that he suffered is just — it’s horrific.

What’s really remarkable here is, as he noted very eloquently, the insult that State Department officials would offer him just $10,000 per life lost. That’s nothing close to an adequate compensation for loved ones, for his wife and his first son. And what’s really shocking is that there is no — there’s no accountability, there’s no system in place to really ensure that these types of incidents don’t happen again and that when they do, that there’s oversight, that there’s penalties and that there’s real consequences for these types of actions. And that’s why we’ve seen this happen over and over and over again. And finally, now, with the Blackwater shooting, it’s finally coming to light, the September 16th shooting.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jawad’s son, a medical student, twenty years old; his wife Mohasin, a dermatologist in Iraq. Jennifer, describe what it was like to go with Susan Burke and the team to Istanbul to meet with these various eyewitnesses and victims of the Blackwater shooting.

JENNIFER DASKAL: Well, every single person who came to Istanbul was incredibly brave to come forward and tell their story. And the stories were, as Susan said earlier, quite tragic. This is totally senseless loss of life. You heard from Ali Khalaf, the trained policeman, who was there on the scene, standing next to the car when the doctor’s son and wife were shot. The car was stopped, as Susan said. This totally contradicts Blackwater’s story that they were in some way under attack or provoked when they were shot at.

And it’s incredibly important that this perspective gets out and that their stories get told, so that the truth of what happens actually gets heard, and that maybe there will be some changes so that there is some accountability and there is some action taken to stop these types of actions and to ensure that private contractors are held accountable for their actions.

There’s between 20,000 and 30,000 private security contractors in Iraq right now. And there’s extremely limited oversight over what they’re doing, over their hiring practices, over vetting of employees. There’s absolutely no systemized compensation system for incidents like this or other incidents where people’s lives are lost or property is damaged. And that absolutely needs to change.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Daskal, you wrote in a piece in salon.com that Erik Prince’s prepared testimony, when he — we played earlier when he testified before Congress — also asserted that one of the vehicles had been disabled by enemy fire and had to be towed, and he contended that helicopters never fired on those below. But that, actually — those words were never delivered; why?

JENNIFER DASKAL: Those words were never delivered, because the day before Erik Prince testified, the Department of Justice announced that it was launching a criminal investigation into the attacks, and the Department of Justice asked the committee not to discuss the specific September 16th incident.

We do know that, from the testimony that Susan collected, that there — according to the witnesses who were at the scene, there is beyond a doubt that helicopters were firing and were overhead and that they were shooting bullets. There are pictures of cars that show extremely large holes in the car that suggest, that look as if, there was some sort of projectile that was coming from above. And we also know from the witnesses at the scene that the cars drove off, that there were no cars that were disabled that needed to be towed. And so, the witnesses’ testimony completely contradict Mr. Prince’s prepared statement for the committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Daskal and Susan Burke are our guests. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to a second video testimony, and that is of a bank employee, a computer technician who worked at the local bank, describing what happened to him and what he saw. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to the second TV video. We have played one TV video, one audio. This is the first time this has been shown on television, and it’s an interview done with Abdul Wahhab, a computer technician at the Trade Bank of Iraq. On September 16, he was on his way to buy a gift for his friend’s baby when he was stuck in traffic near Nisoor Square. He became both a witness and a victim of the Blackwater shootings that day. This is an excerpt of the interview that he did with Bill O’Neil, who is Susan Burke’s partner in the legal team working with Center for Constitutional Rights.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: OK, and when you pulled into the area near Nisoor Square and traffic stopped, what did you do next? Did you stay in your car or get out?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: I stayed in the car. When I heard a bullet sound, I opened the door and get up to see what was happened there.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: OK, so you heard the bullets before you ever saw anyone shooting?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yeah, I heard the bullet, and I saw the helicopters start roaming up over the square.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: How many helicopters did you see?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Two helicopters.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Were they...

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Blue.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Blue?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Blue and small.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Small?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Small helicopters, blue.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Did they have any markings on them?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: No, no. All I can see is one guy. [translated] All what I saw, there was a guy sitting on this, and it opened. It was a door, like door in the helicopter, where the guys sit and take their weapons like this.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: You saw people in the helicopter with weapons?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: One people. One guy. One guy, one person.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Just one person in the open door of the helicopter.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: The door open, and he’s tightly —-

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: He’s strapped in.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yeah, of course.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Just on both sides of the door -— helicopter?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: No, one side. One side of the helicopter.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Both helicopters, you saw?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Both helicopters, they have one, the same.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: The same, OK. And they were circling overhead.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Circling over us.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: OK. Have you seen helicopters like this before?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yeah, I’ve seen these helicopters before. We know this is for American soldiers. We don’t know the company or for army, I don’t know.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Right. Does the Iraqi police have helicopters?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: No, they don’t. They have cars, only cars.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Cars only? OK. So, when you heard the shots, were they coming —-

    ABDUL WAHHAB: At that time -— I want to give you a point — my mother called me by the cell phone. So I talked to her and see what happened. I saw the white car start burning. It’s far from me, but you can see. OK? I told my mother, “Mom, there is a white car start burning.” So she told me, “Hooby, please get back to the house.” I tell her, “OK, I will if I can.” So I closed my cell phone and told the people behind me, “Please, open the road. Get back. Wrong side,” to be — [translated] “It’s a dangerous area, so please let us try to escape from here.”

AMY GOODMAN: Abdul Wahhab, describing getting shot in the arm while trying to get out of Nisoor Square as fast as possible. An armored car was closing in on him.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: When they hit my car, I feel my hands get broken. I know they have shot me. So I open the door and drop myself in the street.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: OK, so they had hit you on the other side of the car.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yes.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: And then, did you hear a shot?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: No, just I feel my hand is broken. Something hit my hand and hit my leg from here. It’s a scratch, you know, scratch my leg, and then something getting inside like the frag, the frag of bullets. I don’t know, maybe it’s —-

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Did it feel hot?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: No, no. Nothing, nothing. Just feel -— [translated] numb. I felt numb in the leg, and in arm. Because —-

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: Is it your left leg?

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yes, this leg. I can show you. There is a scars, my leg, here. So I drop my -— I tell you, I opened the door, because I thought they wants to kill me.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: And they were going by you on the other side of your car.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yeah, they are on the other side.

    WILLIAM O’NEIL: And they had already hit your car, and they were continuing to move.

    ABDUL WAHHAB: Yeah, they hit my car. [translated] Yes, after they shot me, they continued coming.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdul Wahhab, the bank employee, describing what happened to him. For our radio listeners who can’t see the video — and you can go to our website at democracynow.org to see all of this — he has a pin or a brace on his arm where he was shot. Jennifer Daskal, the significance of this testimony of the bank employee? Jennifer Daskal, counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, who, together with Susan Burke and Bill O’Neil, conducted these interviews in Istanbul, bringing the Iraqi victims and witnesses to Turkey to speak.

JENNIFER DASKAL: Well, two things here. First, again, he describes driving — trying to get away and being shot at. Again, another example, another testimony, corroborating the other testimony we’ve heard that the shootings were unprovoked.

And the other really interesting thing about his testimony is he describes how the Iraqis — he and as other Iraqis — all know that when there are helicopters roaming overhead, that this is associated with Americans. He doesn’t know if it’s American soldiers or American contractors. And I think it’s very important to realize that these actions, the actions of these contractors, seriously undermine what the military is trying to do in Iraq and seriously — the Iraqis don’t distinguish between American soldiers and American contractors. And when Americans, regardless of who they are, are out on the streets and engaging in violent, unprovoked activities like this, it damages the United States’s reputation all around the world. It seriously undermines the efforts, the really key efforts, to win hearts and minds.

And it’s absolutely essential, as I said before, that these contractors are brought under a system. If they are going to continue to exist, there needs to be measures, there needs to be vetting of who they’re hiring, there needs to be training mechanisms in place, there needs to be vigorous criminal prosecutions. To date, there has not been a single criminal prosecution of a contractor who’s killed or injured an Iraqi, despite legions of stories of incidents similar to the September 16th shooting incident. And that’s not acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burke, after the attack, after it came out, the guards were interviewed, the Blackwater operatives or guards, however you want to call them — others call them “mercenaries” — and told they had immunity. What is happening right now on that front?

SUSAN BURKE: Well, I think the reality is that the Department of Justice is looking at a criminal prosecution of these shooters. And the vernacular among the mercenary crowd is, the people that go out with the guns are called “the shooters.” So we’re very hopeful that there will be some type of criminal accountability, because that, more than anything, is what’s needed in these instances, because this is criminal conduct, and it’s criminal conduct right in the daylight in front of people. So you have to be worried about this culture of lawlessness that’s been created, the impunity with which they act. Obviously, the civil suit, as one of the reporters coined a phrase yesterday on the phone with me — I thought it was interesting — he called it accountability by liability. And, you know, certainly the civil suits are part of the accountability, but we very much encourage the Department of Justice to go forward with the criminal actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jennifer, what sense did you have that the US government is pursuing this vigorously? And under what laws would they be tried?

JENNIFER DASKAL: Well, again, I mean, I certainly — it seems as if the FBI and the Department of Justice have made statements and have suggested that they’re going after this particular incident, and that is, without a doubt, welcome news. There is an extraterritorial jurisdictional law in place that provides some limited jurisdiction over these types of incidents. It’s not as broad or as far-reaching as is needed to cover necessarily all of the shooting incidents that take place in some of these countries, and there is legislation moving through Congress right now that would try to close some of those gaps. But it’s pretty clear in this case the Department of Justice does have jurisdiction, and it is certainly welcome news the Department of Justice seems to be trying to exercise its jurisdiction in this case.

The concern here is that this doesn’t just — shouldn’t just stop with the September 16th shooting. There have been numerous cases, numerous instances of reported abuse that have either gone uninvestigated or, if investigated, the prosecution just was dropped. And there absolutely needs to be more resources put into these prosecutions. There needs to be FBI teams dedicated to trying to gather the — doing the very difficult job of gathering evidence in what is essentially a war zone. And there needs to be much better coordination between the agencies so that incidents are referred over quickly to the Department of Justice so investigations can get under way.

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