March 1, 2008 By Sameer N. Yacoub, Associated Press
BAGHDAD - The Justice Department appears to be gathering testimony from Iraqi witnesses for a possible trial of Blackwater Worldwide security guards over a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
The witnesses were interviewed by FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys who arrived in Baghdad last week to re-examine evidence from the Sept. 16 shooting and determine whether charges might be brought in U.S. courts.
One Iraqi police officer, who saw the shooting but like other policemen interviewed by The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said investigators asked repeatedly whether the Blackwater convoy was under attack from gunmen before the guards opened fire on the intersection near Baghdad's crowded Nisoor Square.
The officer said he told the FBI team there was no attack on the Blackwater convoy and the only shooting was done by the Blackwater guards.
He said investigators told him that he and other primary witnesses might be asked to travel to the United States to give their accounts to U.S. judges.
The question of whether the Blackwater convoy was fired upon is central to the investigation. Blackwater says its guards were ambushed by insurgents after a downtown car bombing, an account that is bolstered by a preliminary State Department report. Reports by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, however, found no evidence of an ambush.
Investigators hope the Baghdad trip will help sort through the conflicting accounts. A senior police official in the area who was familiar with the investigation said the U.S. team was questioning one to two witnesses a day and examining forensic evidence, including cars that were purportedly shot up in the incident.
He said the Americans had indicated they were trying to fill in gaps in their inquiry ahead of a trial.
Another Iraqi policeman said he was asked to describe in detail the events of Sept. 16.
Since opening a grand jury investigation in November, prosecutors have questioned about 30 U.S. witnesses, including Blackwater security guards and managers, during closed-door grand jury sessions in a Washington courthouse.
The United States cannot compel testimony from foreign nationals living abroad.
The team of agents and prosecutors was expected to return to Washington next week.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it would have no comment as the FBI investigation was being conducted independently from the State Department.
Blackwater and other contractors operate in a legal gray area. Officials exempted contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts in 2004, but it's also unclear whether they can be charged in the U.S.
The father and husband of two of the victims of the shooting said he had not been contacted by U.S. investigators, but he would speak to them if summoned.
"I am not satisfied with the pace of the investigation. It has taken a very long time without rendering any tangible results," said Haithem Ahmed, a 46-year-old pathologist. "I hope that the FBI team will go after truth and give the victims and their families justice and legal rights," he said.
Ahmed's son, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed, died after one of the Blackwater gunners opened fire on his approaching white car, killing him instantly, witnesses said. The car with its transmission still in gear continued moving slowly forward with his mother, Mashasin Khazim, in the passenger seat, witnesses said.
Witnesses said the guards fired at the car again, killing Mashasin, and the continued heavy shooting set the car on fire, burning the bodies of the mother and son.
Iraqi witnesses spoke to reporters and local police following the shooting, saying Blackwater employees in the convoy were unprovoked when they opened fire.
FBI agents reviewed reports of those interviews but did not question the Iraqi witnesses themselves in the agency's first trip to Baghdad two weeks after the shooting.
Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., is the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors with nearly 1,000 people working in Iraq.