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Confronting Blackwater on its Killing of Iraqis

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Last week, I spoke at a conference organized by NYU's Center on Law and Security called "Privatizing Defense: Blackwater, Contractors, and American Security." Also present at the conference were Blackwater Worldwide vice president Martin Strong and a lawyer for Blackwater, David Hammond. At the conference, I confronted Strong on Blackwater's killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. The day after our exchange, the Bush administration extended Blackwater's Iraq "security" contract for another year:

Democracy Now! videotaped the session and covered Blackwater's contract extension:

JEREMY SCAHILL, AUTHOR, BLACKWATER: My name is Jeremy Scahill. I find it very telling that nowhere on this panel do we hear a voice talking about the Iraqi victims of these companies. I find it very interesting -- the way that Mr. Strong and Mr. [Doug] Brooks [president of the pro-industry International Peace Operations Association] talk about this, we could be at a banking convention.

The reality is that Blackwater has killed innocent civilians in Iraq. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, Mr. Strong, but the first victims in Nisour Square that day were a 20-year-old medical student and his mother, not al-Qaeda operatives, not Iraqi insurgents. A nine-year-old boy named Ali was shot in the skull; his brains splattered in his [father's] hands. Your operatives were on the scene that day. They opened fire on these individuals.

And if you don't want to take the word of the witnesses, what about the military that investigated it on the spot that day and found that all seventeen of the Iraqis killed by your men were killed as a result of unprovoked and unjustified gunfire? This was the military investigation. They also found that there was excessive use of force that potentially violated the rules governing contractors in Iraq. When the FBI findings were released in part to the New York Times, they found that 14 of the 17 were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire.

My question to you is, how many innocent Iraqis has your company killed? And what consequences have your men faced for those actions?

MODERATOR: Well, that's about -- you answered -- speak as you want to speak
in response, sorry.

MARTIN STRONG, BLACKWATER VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the third panel is about accountability, if you want to re-ask that question at that point. I'm not a lawyer. I don't know how much time you spent in Iraq or in combat, but I spent 20 years and did 36 combat missions, and I spent nine months in Iraq. And it's a very difficult place. And I think the FBI, who has not issued their investigative report, irrespective of the New York Times or any other newspaper saying that they think they know what's going on, the FBI is going to complete an official investigation, not one done by the seat of the pants. And at that time, we're going to find out exactly what they found out. We have not, as a company, had access to that information, nor did we conduct our own little investigation so I could respond to your question directly. We have no idea what happened there by going back and forensically looking at it. We're awaiting the government's investigation.

[I then responded to Blackwater's Strong later in the day (Strong was sitting in front of me)]

JEREMY SCAHILL: I tried to raise this question with Mr. Strong during his panel, and he chose to ignore the key point that I was raising. And that was the following, that you can dismiss all you want, Mr. Strong, the testimony of the Iraqi witnesses and survivors, like the lawyer who was shot four times in his back as he fled your gunmen; you can dismiss the testimony of a father who held his son's dying body, brain splattered all over him, returning the next day to pick up pieces of his skull to bury in Najaf; you can dismiss the words of Dr. Jawad, whose 20-year-old medical student son was killed, [Jawad's] wife, alongside [him]; but you can't dismiss Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tarsa's investigation of the shooting by your men that day. They concluded, contrary to the statements of your company, that there was no enemy activity involved. They labeled the killings a criminal event. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tarsa's men said that they found all seventeen of the Iraqis killed that day were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked fire by the Blackwater operatives.