On September 16, as a car approached Nisour Square, all the folly and tragedy of the Iraq war was enacted on a Baghdad street. In the vehicle were two Iraqis: Ahmed Haithem was driving his mother, Mohassin, to the local hospital, where her husband worked as a pathologist. They never made it.
Instead, four armored vehicles manned by "private" guards employed by Blackwater USA moved into position and fired: Ahmed was hit, but the car continued on its path, out of control. When the smoke cleared, and the casualties counted, 17 Iraqis were dead and 24 wounded. The Washington Post cites one anonymous high-ranking U.S. official as saying:
“This is a nightmare. We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we’re trying to have an impact for the long term.”
It’s a nightmare alright, especially for the Iraqi people, who have long resented this "private" army of thugs and wannabe heroes, apparently subject to nonexistent rules of engagement. The Americans have slaughtered, abused and otherwise alienated their "liberated" charges before, and the Iraqis did little but bleat a few feeble protests: this time, however, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted with authentic anger. The Iraqi ministry of the interior ordered Blackwater out of the country, and, although the U.S. State Department initially succeeded in getting this order rescinded, that reversal now appears to have been reversed. If Maliki sticks to his guns, the Blackwater massacre could mark a new phase in the war, one that bodes ill for the Americans.
This new phase was prefigured by what Seymour Hersh dubbed "the redirection" and made manifest in the alleged "success" of our alliance with the Sunni tribesmen of Anbar and Diyala provinces. As U.S. war aims in Iraq have shifted from stamping out the Sunni insurgency to preparing for war with Iran, the potential for conflict with the Shi’ite-dominated government has increased: that’s why that anonymous senior official described the Blackwater massacre as possibly "worse than Abu Ghraib." The September 16 incident could be the pivot point leading to the previously unthinkable: a demand by the democratically-elected government of Iraq that U.S. forces begin withdrawing.
Ah, but they wouldn’t do that especially when their very lives depend on the presence of U.S. soldiers now would they?
Don’t count on it: after all, they can always turn to their natural allies in Tehran to afford them all the protection they need.
As Henry Waxman waxes eloquent about how bad it is for the American taxpayer that we are "outsourcing" security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq to private companies like Blackwater and caves to a Justice Department request that places the September 16 massacre beyond the purview of his committee hearings we are in danger of missing the meaning of that deadly day. One has only to read the New York Times coverage which is, so far, the only coherent narrative to get a very clear sense of the horror and tragedy of our involvement in Iraq.
A road bomb went off in the vicinity of a "financial compound" where U.S. diplomatic personnel were present, and an immediate order went out to extract them. While one Blackwater convoy picked up the diplomats who were on their way to Nisour Square at the time of the incident, another convoy moved into the area and diverted traffic. Blackwater officials have previously asserted that their personnel opened fire only when they found themselves under attack, but that account is contradicted by every available witness. As the Times reports:
"The events in the square began with a short burst of bullets that witnesses described as unprovoked. A traffic policeman standing at the edge of the square, Sarhan Thiab, saw that a young man in a car had been hit. In the line of traffic, that car was the third vehicle from the intersection where the convoy had positioned itself.
We tried to help him,’ Mr. Thiab said. I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out: My son, my son. Help me, help me.’"
Bystanders rushed to help, but the Blackwater guards didn’t let them:
"Then Blackwater guards opened fire with a barrage of bullets, according to the police and numerous witnesses. Mr. Ahmed’s father later counted 40 bullet holes in the car. His mother, Mohassin Kadhim, appears to have been shot to death as she cradled her son in her arms. Moments later the car caught fire after the Blackwater guards fired a type of grenade into the vehicle."
Why did the Blackwater guards fire on a car that was nowhere near their convoy until the weight of its dead driver on the accelerator drove it in their direction? No witness recalls shots being fired before the Americans unleashed their deadly fusillade. Yet the Blackguards and their spokesman claimed to have been under attack, possibly from Iraqi police. That’s not how Iraqi witnesses tell it. Says Fareed Walid Hassan, a truck driver caught in the intersection:
"’The shooting started like rain; everyone escaped his car.’ He saw a woman dragging her child. He was around 10 or 11,’ he said. "He was dead. She was pulling him by one hand to get him away. She hoped that he was still alive.’"
Why were the Americans firing indiscriminately into cars at a busy Baghdad intersection? This is the question Rep. Waxman dared not ask at his phony "hearing," and which needs to be asked anyway. The answer, I fear, is because if you’re an American in Iraq, every Iraqi is seen as an enemy. After all, a good proportion of the population wants us the heck out of there, and believes attacks on U.S. soldiers or "private contractors" are entirely justified. In such an atmosphere, who wouldn’t be trigger-happy, not to mention paranoid and driven half-mad by the ever-looming prospect of imminent danger?
The issue is not private contractors, per se, although the rules of engagement followed by the Blackguards are considerably more relaxed than those in force for the U.S. military: U.S. soldiers have been involved in similar incidents, and a lot worse. The point is that we are an occupying force, and are seen as such by the increasingly resentful Iraqis: whether private or U.S. government-owned-and-operated, an army of occupation is going to meet resistance, and so we have. We are fast reaching a critical point when growing resentment and even hatred of the Americans takes the shape of a demand for some accountability from the occupiers.
The official Iraqi investigation into the September 16 incident has been concluded, and submitted to the government: a three-man panel, headed up by the Iraqi defense minister, recommends the Blackguards stand trial in Iraq, under Iraqi law an explosive demand that could lead to an open rupture between the Maliki government and Washington.
If ever Iyad Allawi had a chance to take advantage of an American-sponsored coup, surely that moment, if it isn’t already upon us, cannot be far.
The rising political firestorm over the Blackwater massacre runs up against a legal firewall in the form of an edict issued by Paul Bremer, former U.S. viceroy, that forbids US military personnel (including private contractors) from being charged by Iraqi authorities or tried in Iraqi courts. It was one of his last acts, one that put the lie to the American proclamation of Iraqi "sovereignty."
The crisis will come when Iraqi demands for justice collide with the reality of Iraq’s de facto status as a U.S. colony. In the event of a showdown over this case and over the larger issue of sovereignty the Americans will either go to war with the government they hailed as the vanguard of the region’s democratic transformation, or else pack up their gear and go.
I’m betting on the former. In a war full of ironic twists and turns, this would be the crowning example of what Chalmers Johnson calls "blowback" the unintended consequences of U.S. government intervention overseas that blow back in our faces. With one very important difference, however: it’s hard to believe that growing tensions between Washington and the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government, while unintended, were altogether unanticipated.
In their planned war with Iran, surely the best the neocons can hope for is a neutral or effectively neutralized Iraqi government. It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to project the possibility of U.S. troops facing off against the Shi’ite party militias run by the parties of the ruling coalition.
How will our War Party explain this rather disturbing turn of events to their bewildered and war-weary constituency, which is, at any rate, shrinking fast? Easy. By that time, the image of a nuke-wielding terrorist-sponsoring Saddam Hussein will have long since morphed into a nuclear-armed, Hezbollah-sponsoring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bound and determined to wipe Israel off the map.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I‘ve been blogging, over at Taki’s Top Drawer, on Norman Podhoretz, the Unknown Soldier of the War Party; remembering the Liberty, the Lobby’s reaction to the Mearsheimer-Walt book, what happens when a left-interventionist (and a Brit to boot) runs into the antiwar right, and why Ramesh Ponnuru ought to go **** himself.
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