16 Sep, 2022 09:57 

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15 years after US Blackwater mercenaries massacred civilians in Baghdad, has anything changed for private military contractors?

The Nisour Square massacre was a notorious incident some years after the illegal US invasion of Iraq

FILE PHOTO: Members of a private security company pose on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad, 18 September 2007. © AFP / PATRICK BAZ

Exactly 15 years ago, a powerful car bomb exploded nearby while American diplomats were meeting with Iraqi officials in Baghdad. An evacuation of US State Department employees was being handled by Blackwater Security Consulting, a private military company (PMC). But what was supposed to be a routine operation resulted in a bloody massacre in the center of the Iraqi capital.

When a sniper spotted a suspicious white Kia driving on the wrong side of the road and ignoring the signals of police officers and the military team, he pulled the trigger as his colleagues set off stun grenades. The Kia burst into flames, killing the female driver, her adult son, and a nearby policeman who was trying to figure out what was going on.

This, however, was just the beginning. The mercenaries opened fire in all directions using heavy machine guns and grenade launchers, killing unarmed civilians in the process. The Iraqi police returned fire, which essentially resulted in armed street fighting. It was reported that one Blackwater guard kept shooting until his colleague pointed a weapon at him.

The Nisour Square massacre was one of the most prominent events of the US-Iraq conflict, raising doubts about America’s true intentions in the region. RT has asked experts to share their thoughts on what the incident meant for Washington’s Middle East policy and the likelihood of another tragedy like this.

Why did it happen?

The Blackwater incident resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqis, including two children. Another 20 were wounded.

The guards later justified their actions as self-defense, in what they said they considered an ambush. They believed they were being confronted by insurgents in police uniforms.

Unfortunately for them, the shooting in Nisour Square was witnessed by journalists, who gave the bloody incident international coverage.

An Iraqi woman walks past 24 September 2007, at a burnt car on the site where Blackwater guards who were escorting US embassy officials opened fire in the western Baghdad neighbourhood of Yarmukh, a shootout which left, 16 September 2007, nine civilians and a policeman dead. © AFP / ALI YUSSEF

Andrey Chuprygin, an expert in Arab studies and professor at the School of Asian Studies of the Higher School of Economics, says the Nisour Square shooting was just one example of civilians dying at the hands of American mercenaries in the Middle East.

“The Blackwater incident is just a sensational story which received a lot of publicity, but the Americans messed up there quite often. It’s not surprising. It happens to almost all private military companies that work in these challenging regions,” he explained.

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Chuprygin believes there are psychological factors behind such incidents. He describes a typical pattern. “Imagine the average private contractor. He’s all dressed up in cool gear, a bulletproof vest, sunglasses, and all, looking very fierce, you know. But, in fact, he’s scared because he knows he can be bombed or shot at from around the corner at any time. They’re on a mission providing security for VIPs, and all of a sudden there is shooting nearby. Even a professional who knows, for example, the traditions of an Arab wedding, which is often accompanied by firing AK rifles into the air, might jump. Who knows if this is really a wedding? So the guards start shooting back. Later, they figure out what was really going on, but the realization often comes too late,” Chuprygin said.

A crime without punishment

Almost immediately after the Baghdad shooting, sources quoted by US media conceded that Blackwater’s actions were not justified. But it was not so easy to prove.

Parallel investigations were launched in the US and in Iraq, but the Iraqi authorities had no power to punish the contractors. According to the agreement in force at the time, they were exempt from Iraq’s jurisdiction – and this did not change until 2009, 18 months after the tragedy.

Initially, the State Department tried to protect American military contractors. It promised the guards “limited-use immunity” as it collected testimony from them, although it did not have the authority to make such promises.

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The State Department also allowed evidence to be removed from the scene. By the time the FBI took over the investigation, Blackwater’s vehicles had been repaired and repainted, with some reports suggesting that diplomats even helped the mercenaries collect shell casings from the intersection.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time, demanded that the US government terminate its contract with Blackwater, issue an official apology to Iraq, and pay compensation to the victims or their families. Following the incident, Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq was indeed temporarily revoked, but in the end, the company was allowed to fulfill its $1 billion contract and continue to provide security services for diplomats. It only paid compensation to the families of six of the 17 victims in 2012.

Eventually, four members of the notorious military company were held accountable for the incident. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard were sentenced by a US court to 30 years in prison for manslaughter, while Nicholas Slatten, who started the shooting, was sentenced to life.

The sentences were reviewed in 2017 and 2019, and were cut by more than half.

This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. ©  AP Photo

The case was resolved once and for all in late 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, whose close personal relationship with Blackwater founder Erik Prince was well known. Betsy DeVos, Prince’s sister, even held the office of the secretary of education in the Trump administration. Trump granted full presidential pardons to all four Blackwater guards found guilty of the shooting on Nisour Square.

A reason to part ways

The Blackwater incident cost the American military in the Middle East a lot more, experts interviewed by RT believe.

Russian-American political scientist Malek Dudakov called the shooting a landmark event and a major international scandal.

“This incident motivated the Iraqi authorities to seek the withdrawal of American troops from the country. The main US contingent was withdrawn under Barack Obama, although then it had to be sent back again to ward off ISIS,” he said.

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Chuprygin pointed out that, after the incident, the activities of US and foreign private military companies were restricted in Iraq.

“It was at that time that the process began which forced the Americans to reduce their presence and eventually withdraw. It was quite painful. For example, Halliburton did huge business in Iraq, but this began to shrink after the troop withdrawal because the logistical and political support also shrank. However, it was not only the newly adopted laws that led to this. It’s just that in Arab countries, tradition always prevails in the end,”he said.

He noted that, in the Middle East, the average person, as well as political elites, has always perceived the US differently, and the incident on Nisour Square did little to sway already-established opinions.

“The reputation of the United States in the Arab Middle East is a distinct, rather interesting thing. No one likes Americans at street level. In some countries like Libya, it’s better not to appear outside the capital with an American passport at all. Before the Second World War, the United States had practically no presence in the Middle East. Since then, it’s been constantly trying to bring ‘happiness’ to the local population. However, the American understanding of the word ‘happiness’ does not at all coincide with the concept of happiness shared by the ordinary people of these countries. 

To the overwhelming majority of ordinary Arabs, Americans simply represent an alien and slightly wild culture.

“And after the Blackwater incident, the Arab streets turned to the authorities once more: ‘Do you see what horrific things are happening?’ But the political elite, which is historically tied to the United States through financial dealings, education, and other connections, in fact, gave this answer: ‘Even an old woman can slip up now and then,’” Chuprygin said.

How PMCs have changed since then

It became impossible for Blackwater and Erik Prince to continue doing business as usual in the wake of the outrage sparked by the killing of civilians in Baghdad. In 2009, Prince resigned as CEO. In February of the same year, Blackwater Worldwide officially changed its name to Xe, and then became Academi in 2010.

In 2014, Academi merged with Triple Canopy, a subsidiary of the Constellis Group. Later, it was fully integrated into the parent company and now operates under the name Constellis.

But the incident at Nisour Square eventually came to affect not only Blackwater, but the entire PMC industry, experts say.

FILE PHOTO: American Blackwater security guards protect American diplomats as they meet with Iraqi Shiites of the large Bani Hassan tribe and its new head, Sheikh Muthanna al-Hatem al-Hassan–a candidate in Iraq’s upcoming elections–in the southern city of Najaf on January 25, 2005. © Getty Images / Scott Peterson

“The Pentagon suspended cooperation with PMCs for several years, but then it resumed, for example, in Afghanistan. The US Congress also tried to legislatively restrict the activities of PMCs and put them under certain control, which was absolutely not the case until 2007. And now it is a fully regulated market,” Dudakov said.

However, despite all attempts to bring the work of mercenaries under control, a repetition of a scenario similar to the events on Nisour Square is still possible in 2022, according to experts

“Of course, this is still possible now, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere where there are active conflicts and there is a threat of PMC employees coming under fire. Legally, there is no way to guarantee this won’t happen,” Chuprygin said.

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According to him, there are currently at least several Western PMCs in Iraq that accompany VIPs outside the ‘green zone’, and protect facilities, port and logistics structures, and natural resource deposits.

“Some people say it would be a good thing to ban PMCs altogether. But what would that lead to? Take, for example, the very same Iraq, where Western PMCs have been operating since 2003. Without them, Western companies would simply wind down their business, as they do not trust the local police. But after the incident with Blackwater, almost 100 percent of the PMCs in Iraq have been tightened up. We haven’t heard of any serious mishaps since then. Private military companies have also been working out the bugs. For them, this is a huge business. The market is very large and financially advantageous. The leaders in this are the Americans, the British, the French.”

Chuprygin added that PMCs still receive most of their income from their countries’ budgets and continue to work for the governments of these states.

Dudakov noted that even in the military operations conducted in Ukraine, where foreign mercenaries are fighting on the side of Kiev, ‘soldiers of fortune’ can still be observed operating outside legal control.

“It’s just that now the mercenaries’ excesses are not widely covered in the media, and indeed, we can say there hasn’t been a single major incident where civilians in public have been shot by PMCs in recent years. But no one is guaranteed that a repeat of the shooting scenario at Nisour won’t happen,” he said.

By Maxim Hvatkov, a Russian journalist focusing on international security, China’s politics and soft-power tools.

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