BAGHDAD — Three black GMC Suburbans — each fitted with armored plates and bulletproof windows — made up the heart of the convoy. The front and rear were protected by Blackwater USA gun trucks, known as Mambas, each mounted with two belt-fed 7.62 caliber heavy guns.
The vehicles snaked through the checkpoints and blast walls of the Green Zone on another scorching morning. The temperature that day — Sept. 16 — would rise again above 100 degrees.
Kerry Pelzman, a USAID specialist on helping rebuild Iraqi businesses, schools and other infrastructure, rode in one of the Suburbans. Her appointment was about two miles from the nearest Green Zone entrance in a neighborhood of opulent homes once occupied by members of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Within a few minutes, Pelzman was again in a secure compound for a planning session on Izdihar — a U.S.-Iraqi joint venture company that was working to rebuild Iraq’s badly damaged services and funded by USAID on a three-year contract.
At about noon, a car bomb exploded about 200 yards away. Blackwater guards hustled Pelzman back into the vehicles, worried the bomb was the beginning of a larger attack. The convoy raced back toward the Green Zone.
Attempts by investigators to piece together what happened over the next hour have been like gathering the remnants of broken glass, spent bullet casings and blood-soaked clothes that were scattered around Nisoor Square. Each bit represents a part of the story — a version, a perspective — but have not yet yielded a full and mutually agreed rendering of what caused Blackwater guards to open fire.
Iraqi report faults Blackwater
An Iraqi government report — examined by The Associated Press — is the latest probe in a wave of inquests from Baghdad to Washington. It comes down hard on Blackwater, demanding it leave Iraq within six month and blames it for killing 17 civilians on Sept. 16. The previous death toll was at least 11.
The Iraq report — as well as witness accounts and statements from Iraqi officials to the AP — put forward new details on the deadly chain of events. Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared possible retribution or were not authorized to provide details of what happened.
Blackwater and U.S. officials have refused to comment on the events. Blackwater has said in the United States that its convoy in Nisoor Square opened fire only after coming under attack. No Iraqi witness has corroborated that claim.
As Pelzman’s convoy was preparing to move toward the Nisoor Square traffic circle — just on the edge of the Green Zone — her Blackwater detail radioed for backup, fearing the explosion might be a diversion for a kidnapping operation against her and others in the compound.
At about 12:15 p.m., four additional Mambas arrived at the traffic circle. Their plan was to watch over the traffic choke-point until the convoy passed.
Witness: Woman screams, 'My son!'
What should have been a relatively routine mission went terribly wrong when one of the Blackwater gunners — in the last Mamba that arrived in Nisoor Square — opened fire on an approaching white car driven by Ahmed Haithem Ahmed, a 20-year-old third-year medical student.
He was shot through the forehead and apparently died instantly. The car — with the automatic transmission still in gear — continued moving slowly forward. His mother, Mahasin Khazim, a 46-year-old allergist, was in the passenger seat and reached over to cradle her son’s body.
“At first, there were five shots and after that I heard a woman screaming, ’My son, My son! Help!”’ said Sarhan Thiab, a traffic policeman who was on duty in the square.
“I ran with another policeman toward the car and we tried to pull the woman out. She was holding her son. His head was blown apart. We tried to stop the car, which was still moving slowly because the son’s foot was on the accelerator.”
Thiab said the Blackwater guards started firing at the car again.
“I tried to use hand signals to make the Blackwater people understand that the car was moving on its own and we were trying to stop it. We were trying to get the woman out but had to run for cover,” Thiab said.
Vehicle set ablaze
Continued heavy shooting set the car on fire, burning the corpses of the mother and son.
Hiathem Ahmed, a 46-year-old pathologist, was the father and husband of those first two victims of the shooting that day.
“My son and wife had dropped me near my hospital and went off to run errands when they were stopped in the square. I waited for them all afternoon, kept calling their cell phones. At 5 p.m., I called a relative who lives near the square.
“He told me that there was an incident and many people were killed or wounded. I went with him to the hospital morgue. All the bodies were recognizable except for two burned bodies.
“I was able to identify my son’s body through a piece of his shoe. I could tell the other was my wife because of a dental bridge.”
Ahmed said he would not remove his destroyed car from where it still sits near the square.
“I want it to be a memorial to the painful event caused by people who, supposedly, came to protect us.”
“My wife was a distinguished woman, a talented doctor. My son was a gentle and cooperative person. He was on his way to becoming a doctor. They died while they were fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. They died as innocent people. I ask God’s mercy on them.”
Iraqi man describes incident
Mohammed Hafiz, a 37-year-old who owns a car parts business, lost his 10-year old child, Ali Mohammed. They were in the car immediately behind the white car. He wept heavily as he told the story.
“We were six persons in the car — me, my son, my sister and her three sons. The four children were in the back seat. My car was hit by about 30 bullets, everything was damaged, the engine, the windshield, the back windshield and the tires.
“When the shooting started, I told everybody to get their heads down. I could hear the children screaming in fear.
“When the shooting stopped, I raised my head and heard my nephew shouting at me ’Ali is dead, Ali is dead.’ When I held him, his head was badly wounded, but his heart was still beating. I thought there was a chance and I rushed him to the hospital.
“The doctor told me that he was clinically dead and the chance of his survival was very slim. One hour later, Ali died.”
He said children in his neighborhood, unaware Ali was killed, still show up at his house asking if Ali can come outside to play.
“I understand that it is God’s will. But such people should not be allowed to work in Iraq,” he said of Blackwater.
Witness: Guard tried to stop the attack
Hafiz said he was interviewed by three U.S. military officers Sept. 26 at the Iraqi National Police headquarters about 500 yards from Nisoor Square. He said he heard other witnesses telling the U.S. officers they had seen a Blackwater guard trying to stop the shooting. The witnesses said the guard even pulled his gun on the other shooters, who ignored the threat and continued firing.
At some point during the chaos in Nisoor Square, the Blackwater guards there must have radioed the Pelzman convoy to the north and warned it not to take its planned route back to the Green Zone. No witness ever saw it in the square.
Pelzman declined to comment to the AP. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Mirembe Nantongo, said she could not give details of the convoy or its members “for reasons of security and privacy and to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.”
Once shooting stopped in the square, the Blackwater guards moved the four gun trucks clockwise around the traffic circle — against the traffic flow — and headed north toward where the Pelzman convoy may have been rushing back to the Green Zone by a less direct and longer route.
“Even as they were withdrawing, they were shooting randomly to clear the traffic,” said Ahmed Abdul-Timan, a 20-year-old who was standing in the middle of the traffic circle throughout the shooting. He works for the Baghdad city government as a guard at the traffic tunnel that runs under the square.
In addition, he said two helicopters were overhead and shooting into the melee in the square below. The government report reached a similar conclusion.
“They began shooting at the people. One man was shot in his shoulder from above. ... It wasn’t heavy fire,” Ahmed Abdul-Timan said.
Man says helicopters fired from above
Another witness in the square, traffic policeman Hussam Abdul-Rahman, who said his cousin was killed in the shooting, also told AP he saw helicopters over the square.
“I saw small helicopters flying overhead as well as two Apaches flying at a distance. Only the small helicopters started shooting,” Abdul-Rahman said. Blackwater teams use small helicopters known as the AH-6 Little Birds.
Ali Khalaf, yet another traffic policemen in the square, also told of helicopters firing from above.
“The helicopters began shooting on the cars on the Harthiyah (north) side of the square,” Khalaf said. The four gun trucks left the square in that direction through clouds of green smoke. The armored vehicles often use such smoke canisters as cover.
“The helicopters shot and killed the driver of a Volkswagen and wounded a passenger,” Khalaf said. The wounded survivor escaped by “rolling out of the car into the street.”
The government report said a second Blackwater convoy — apparently not Pelzman’s — tried to move through the square shortly after the shooting.
Iraqi police used water trucks to block the GMCs from entering the square. It moved into an intense standoff — weapons pointed by both sides — between the Blackwater personnel in the vehicles and Iraqi police. The face-off was defused when two U.S. military Humvees emerged from the nearby National Police Headquarters and persuaded the Blackwater drivers and guards to turn around and return to the Green Zone.
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