Dear Commons Community,
After seven years, four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards were convicted and immediately jailed yesterday for their roles in a deadly 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that marked a bloody nadir in America’s war in Iraq. A jury in Federal District Court found that the deaths of 17 Iraqis in the shooting, which began when a convoy of the guards suddenly began firing in a crowded intersection, was not a battlefield tragedy, but the result of a criminal act. The convictions on murder, manslaughter and weapons charges represented a legal and diplomatic victory for the United States government, which had urged Iraqis to put their faith in the American court system. That faith was tested repeatedly over seven years as the investigation had repeated setbacks, leaving Iraqis deeply suspicious that anyone would be held responsible for the deaths. As reported in the New York Times:
“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney in Washington. “Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women and children. Today, they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families.”
One defendant, Nicholas A. Slatten, a sniper who the government said fired the first shots, was convicted of murder. The others — Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough — were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. A fifth contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter and cooperated with prosecutors.
Jurors could not reach verdicts on several of the counts against Mr. Heard, but that will have little bearing on the sentencing. The machine-gun charges carry mandatory 30-year minimum prison sentences, more than the manslaughter charges. Mr. Slatten faces possible life in prison. No sentencing date has been set.
The trial was an epilogue to the story of Blackwater, which began as a police- and military-training facility in North Carolina and came to symbolize the country’s outsourcing of its wartime responsibilities.
About 1,000 of Blackwater’s contractors guarded diplomats in Iraq. Others loaded bombs onto Predator drones. The company’s founder, Erik Prince, tapped retired Central Intelligence Agency officials for executive positions, and at one point, the C.I.A. hired Blackwater contractors to covertly track and kill Qaeda operatives worldwide, a program that was shelved before any killings were conducted.
While the company’s security guards were involved in scores of shootings in Iraq, it was the 2007 incident in Nisour Square that helped cement Blackwater’s image as a company that operated with impunity because of its lucrative contracts with the American government. The company became the subject of several Justice Department investigations, all of which the company and its executives survived. But ultimately, public outrage over the shooting contributed to Blackwater’s demise. It lost its contracts and was renamed, sold and renamed again.”
Blackwater was a black mark on the American involvement in Iraq and a lesson in what happens when government outsources military operations to mercenaries.