On Sunday, employees of an American private security company were involved in a shoot out in central Baghdad that left at least 11 civilians dead, including a mother and her child. A spokeswoman for the firm, Blackwater USA, told reporters that the “independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack supported Blackwater’s version of events, saying yesterday that “the basic fact is that there was an attack on the convoy.” This version of the events, however, was contradicted today by “a preliminary Iraqi report” obtained by the New York Times:
“There was not shooting against the convoy,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government’s spokesman. “There was no fire from anyone in the square.” [...]
American Embassy officials had said Monday that the Blackwater guards had been responding to a car bomb, but Mr. Dabbagh said the bomb was so far away that it could not possibly have been a reason for the convoy to begin shooting.
Instead, he said, the convoy had initiated the shooting when a car did not heed a police officer and moved into an intersection.
“The traffic policeman was trying to open the road for them,” he said. “It was a crowded square. But one small car did not stop. It was moving very slowly. They shot against the couple and their child. They started shooting randomly.”
Witnesses of the incident who spoke to McClatchy on Monday support the Iraqi report. “Three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting said that only the Blackwater guards were firing.” But in a press briefing today, State Department spokesman Tom Casey dismissed the preliminary report while sticking to the Blackwater line:
QUESTION: But you still maintain that this was a defense action in response to an attack. This is — that’s not, apparently, what the Iraqis are saying.
CASEY: You know, what I know and what Sean said yesterday is the convoy came under attack and there was defensive fire as a result of that.
There are various — there are eyewitness accounts that say a whole variety of different things as to what the sequence was and where fire came from and all that. That’s what the investigation has to figure out.
And I don’t — I don’t want to try and assert for you that things happened in a specific order of events, because I just don’t know that’s true.
QUESTION: OK. This is different from an eyewitness account. This is the Iraqi investigation. So you’re discounting their investigation…
As Spencer Ackerman of TPMmuckraker reports, the State Department has a vested interest in whether Blackwater acted offensively or defensively during the shootout, since their rules of engagement “are set by State” and are more aggressive than “other security contractors who use the Military Rules of Engagement and Rules of Force.”
Additionally, the State Department “rarely” conducts thorough investigations of such incidents in Iraq. “We get almost weekly reports of such shootings,” a State Department official told The Blotter. “But it is close to impossible to go the crime scene and interview witnesses.”
UPDATE: Here’s the video of Casey’s press briefing: