US war crimes in Iraq

Trump's pardon of mercenaries guilty of massacre in Iraq leads to outrage worldwide

Print edition : January 29, 2021

An Iraqi traffic policeman inspecting a car destroyed by Blackwater guards during a 2007 firing at Nisour Square in Baghdad, a file picture. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP

Mohammed Hafiz with a picture of his 10-year-old son, Ali Mohammed, who was killed in the massacre. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP

At the grave of Ibrahim Abid, another victim of the Blackwater firing, a file picture. Photo: Hadi Mizban/AP

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, before a House Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington on November 30, 2017. Photo: NYT

Dustin Heard , Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough, who were pardoned by U.S. President Donald Trump on December 22. Photo: AP

Trump’s decision to pardon mercenaries guilty of massacring innocents in Baghdad evokes global outcry and consternation within the U.S.

United States President Donald Trump’s notorious pardons list has come in for scathing criticism domestically and internationally. One of the most controversial presidential pardons, from an international perspective, was the one extended to four U.S. mercenaries working for a private security company then known as Blackwater. Earlier last year, Trump had pardoned three other jailed U.S. Army officers who had committed war crimes against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The four “Blackwater contractors” who were pardoned by Trump in December had been convicted of the cold-blooded killing of 14 Iraqis at Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. Seventeen Iraqi civilians were also grievously injured in that incident.

Mark Esper, the former U.S. Defence Secretary, had apparently cautioned Trump against pardoning the convicted soldiers of fortune. Esper had fallen out of favour with Trump towards the end of his tenure and was eased out of office soon after the election results were announced in November. The decision to pardon the four was taken after Esper’s departure. According to an opinion poll taken last year, the majority of those serving in the U.S. armed forces are against presidential pardons being extended to their colleagues accused of war crimes.

Nisour Square massacre

The facts of the Nisour Square massacre case have been well documented and authenticated. Blackwater mercenaries acting as security guards for the U.S. State Department officials opened fire on civilian traffic on a busy Baghdad street without warning. After detailed investigations conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Army and the Iraqi authorities, it was concluded that the mercenaries had opened fire using automatic weapons and grenade launchers on civilian vehicular traffic.

Also read: The Nisour Square massacre, a contract killing

The FBI’s investigation into the Nisour Square massacre was the most comprehensive and expensive one the agency had undertaken since its probe into the 9/11 terror attacks. Its investigation only reinforced the belief that the Blackwater team had targeted private cars, taxis and buses carrying civilians without reason.

The FBI findings revealed that snipers who were part of the Blackwater contingent were also involved in the shooting. Among those killed were two woman and two very young boys. The FBI had described the incident as “the My Lai incident of Iraq”, referring to the incident when U.S. troops massacred more than a hundred people at My Lai village in Vietnam in 1968. Only one U.S. soldier was punished for that heinous crime.

Given the anger that the Nisour Square massacre evoked among ordinary Iraqis and the international criticism that followed at the time, the U.S. was forced to take action.

The incident happened at the height of the “military surge” ordered by the then President George W. Bush to bring the armed resistance against the occupation in Iraq under control. U.S. troops were coming under fire in Baghdad and major Iraqi cities from the resistance forces. Previous killings and torture of innocent civilians by U.S. and British forces had motivated many ordinary Iraqis to join the resistance.

Blackwater

The Pentagon had contracted Blackwater, owned by Erik Prince, an ex-marine, to provide security for the U.S. military bases in Iraq as well as for the country’s diplomatic staff working in the country. In the last decade, the company has been sold and rebranded under different names. It is currently known as Academi and is still in the business of providing mercenaries for hire.

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Blackwater lost its credibility and most of its lucrative contracts after the 2007 incident. Prince, meanwhile, continues to be in the business of supplying mercenaries for many authoritarian right-wing governments in the region. He had even come up with a plan to replace the U.S. Army in Afghanistan with so-called military contractors, which the Pentagon rejected three years ago.

The majority of the Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 were ex-servicemen from the U.S. Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. Education Secretary, is well connected with the U.S. military establishment and the leadership of the Republican party. Many senior executives hired by Prince were former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials. The company was initially given a $1 billion contract to provide security cover for U.S. personnel deployed in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

In August 2019, a U.S. Federal Court judge in Washington delivered the final verdict on those most responsible for the killing of innocents at Nisour Square. The U.S. government had flown in 30 survivors and eyewitnesses for the initial trial hearing in 2014. All the witnesses strongly and convincingly refuted Blackwater’s claims that the convoy it was protecting came under attack and that their “contractors” had no other option but to open fire. The company’s lawyers argued that the deaths of civilians were an inescapable consequence of urban warfare. But the survivors of the massacre strongly refuted this argument. They all said that the contractors shot randomly at all civilians, young and old, even at those desperately running for cover.

Also read: Through mercenaries, privatising a war

A U.S. congressional report released in 2008 had concluded that between 2005 and 2007, Blackwater security personnel operating in Iraq had used deadly force on a “weekly basis”, causing “significant casualties” and deadly damage. The report also stated that the hired guns employed by Blackwater were the ones who first opened fire in 80 per cent of the cases reported in Iraq during the period immediately following the invasion.

Final sentence

Despite the efforts of right-wing Republican politicians and media outlets such as Fox News to block a fair trial, a U.S. federal court finally sentenced four Blackwater personnel to long prison terms in 2014. The U.S. State Department had, from the beginning, tried to undermine the case against the Blackwater contractors by ordering the removal of evidence from the scene of the carnage and had given the contractors “limited immunity” after the shooting. This made it difficult for the U.S. Justice Department to build up a case.

Nicholas Slatten, who was the first to open fire on the Iraqi civilians, was given a life sentence. One document submitted to the court portrayed Slatten as a revenge-seeking army veteran who routinely boasted about his desire “to kill as many Iraqis as he could as payback for 9/11”. He had repeatedly boasted about the number of Iraqis he had killed during his previous tours of duty as a U.S. Army soldier in Iraq. George W. Bush as well as his senior colleagues had blamed former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his government for the 9/11 terror attacks, and many people in the U.S. believed in this fiction. In 2015, a three-judge panel of the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned the life sentence given to Slatten and the long jail sentence for the three other main accused. At the time of the sentencing the U.S. Attorney’s office had said: “The sheer amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants’ criminal conduct on September 16, 2007, is staggering.”

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President-elect Joe Biden played an important role in ensuring that the case was heard and justice was meted out, after another Federal judge had thrown out the initial prosecution of the four accused. The U.S. Attorney’s office, in a statement issued after the 2015 verdict, said that “none of the victims was an insurgent” or posed a danger to the U.S. convoy escorted by the military contractors. “In killing and maiming unarmed civilians, these defendants acted unreasonably and without justification,” it said.

Outcry against pardon

David Boslego, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said that the massacre was a “grossly excessive use of force” that made the U.S. relationship with Iraqis “more strained”. John Patarini, one of the army officers investigating the case, said in a letter to the New York Times that he was shocked by Trump’s pardon. “I am embarrassed for our country. I believe we will pay a heavy price in our relationship with other countries as a result of these pardons,” he wrote.

The conviction of the Blackwater mercenaries was a rare case in the country’s recent military history. U.S. servicemen and military contractors have got away with worse war crimes in Iraq and other war zones. Private Chelsea Manning’s leak to WikiLeaks under the title “Collateral murder” revealed much more horrific massacres committed by U.S. soldiers on duty in Iraq.

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Chelsea Manning was sentenced to a 35-year prison term for exposing U.S. war crimes. She was given a presidential pardon by Barack Obama but is now again in jail for refusing to implicate Julian Assange on espionage charges. Assange, despite international outrage, lies incarcerated in a British prison, awaiting extradition to the U.S. He too faces a lifetime in prison for letting the world know about the war crimes committed by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other parts of the world.

Iraqi protest

The Iraqi government lodged a strong protest after Trump announced his “full pardon” for the Blackwater contractors. A statement from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said that the U.S. President had not taken “into account the seriousness of the crime committed”. Trump’s pardon, the statement said, “regrettably ignores the dignity of the victims as well as feelings and the rights of their families”. The Iraqi government has said that it will ask the Biden administration to review the decision.

Fares Saadi, an Iraqi police officer who led the investigation into the killings, told the media that he never expected justice from the U.S. Naeem Aboudi, an Iraqi member of parliament, said that the entire world should support the Iraqi government’s view and that the “double standards” of the U.S. should be exposed. He said: “These men were tried in U.S. courts, they are killers, and it was a very clear crime, with innocent defenceless civilians as its victims, killed in cold blood.”

Also read: The U.S' poor human rights record

Trump’s insulting pardon came at a time when the calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq were getting louder. Ever since the assassination of Gen. Qassim Soleimani of Iran in Baghdad on January 3 last year, Iraqi public opinion has turned irrevocably against the presence of U.S. troops in their country.

The “green zone” in Baghdad, which houses the largest U.S. diplomatic compound in the world, has been frequently targeted by rockets since then. U.S. troops are now mostly confined to their bases and rarely dare venture out.

The United Nations also criticised Trump’s decision to pardon war criminals. Jelena Aparac, head of the U.N.’s working group on mercenaries, said in a statement: “The Geneva Conventions oblige states to hold war criminals accountable for their crimes, even when they act as private security contractors.” She added: “These pardons violate U.S. obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law and human rights at a global level. Ensuring accountability for such crimes is fundamental to humanity and the community of nations.”

A working group of five independent eminent persons appointed by the U.N. also reiterated that countries had an obligation to hold war criminals to account. The statement issued by the committee voiced deep concern at the practice of states allowing private security contractors “to operate with impunity in armed conflicts”. They warned that such practices would encourage states to “circumvent the obligations under humanitarian law by increasingly outsourcing core military operations to the private sector”.

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The U.S. has consistently refused to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other global judicial forums, arguing that its judicial system was capable of expeditiously dealing with war crimes committed by its own soldiers. But the recent spate of pardons issued by Trump to those accused of serious war crimes undermines such claims.

The killings by the Blackwater military contractors led to the creation of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICOCA), dedicated to creating accountability for private security contractors who are being increasingly deployed around the globe.

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