Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Bitterness at Blackwater shootings

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Baghdad

A bullet hole in a traffic light pole in Nisour Square in Baghdad, 7 December 2008
More than a year on, relatives of those killed in the shooting remain angry

The Iraqi government has welcomed the indictment in the US of five guards working for private security firm Blackwater who opened fire at a busy Baghdad intersection, killing 17 Iraqi civilians.

A spokesman said Iraq welcomed any attempt to hold what he called "criminals accountable for their crimes".

And the National Security Adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie said the 'party is over' for the security contractors working in Iraq.

"From January there will be no immunity for these people. If they violate the law, if they encroach on the local people, they will be liable under Iraqi law."

Blackwater, which is responsible for the protection of hundreds of American and other foreign officials in Iraq, says the guards' convoy came under attack from insurgents.

Eye witnesses and family members maintain that the shooting was unprovoked.

"I was driving. My sister was beside me in the car," said businessman Mohammed al-Kinana, who lost his son in the tragedy.

Mohammed al-Kinana holds a picture of his son, who died in the shooting
Those men, they just kept shooting and shooting
Mohammed al-Kinana, who lost his nine-year-old son

"Her three children were in the back seat and my son was directly behind me. My sister grabbed my head to pull me down. Those men, they just kept shooting and shooting.

"They shot in all directions. At the trees. At the police hut. They kept shooting at the first car until it burst into flames."

In that first car to reach the intersection were Mahasin and Ahmed al-Rubaie, wife and son of Dr Haythem Ahmed al-Rubaie. Ahmed was shot, then his mother died from gunfire while she was cradling her son in her arms.

Dr Rubaie rejected a $10,000 (£6,660) compensation as an insult and says he has not yet even received an apology.

"They killed my wife and son and all the other innocent people," he said. "What have they done for them? Did they apologise? Can anybody tell me when he sees his beloved wife and son - his head blown out charred, black... for what reason?"

Seventeen-year-old Mohammed Osama lost his father in the shooting. He believes the five guards being indicted should be executed. "They need to get the harshest possible punishment," he said.

Forcing change

The issue of armed private security guards operating in Iraq remains unresolved, mainly because they protect so many American and other foreign officials working here.

Police in Nisour Square, in the upmarket Baghdad suburb where the shooting happened, speak with disdain at the mention of Blackwater, one saying that he is concerned for the lives of Iraqis while they continue to be here.

An Iraqi traffic policeman inspects a car destroyed in the Blackwater incident in September 2007

While we are speaking a private security convoy passes. Drivers stay fearfully back and a machine gun swings round to one car that strays too close.

The tragedy, though, began to redefine the relationship between Iraq and America.

It was a symbolic part of negotiations on when and how American forces should leave Iraq and at the weekend the top military commander, General Raymond Odierno, told his troops that all Iraqis must be treated with "the utmost honour and dignity".

Dr Rubaie does not want the death penalty for the five Blackwater guards, but he does want Americans to understand that they are not the masters of Iraq.

"They think they are the master country. They say we are coming to Iraq to teach them how to deal with human beings, how to treat women...

"They killed my wife. They were seeing her and hearing her with my son saying 'help me, help me' and they killed her."

The Blackwater killings is one tragic story from this long war, but one that is forcing a direct change.

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