Unanswered Questions in Blackwater Killings Persist

On September 17, 2007, a Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe and pronounced "zee") personal security detail escorting a U.S. State Department diplomatic team in a convoy opened fire in Baghdad's crowded Nisoor Square, reportedly killing 17 Iraqi civilians without provocation.

Most witnesses agree on how the shooting started, when a car being slowly driven down the wrong side of the road refused to yield for Iraqi policemen and continued to drive towards the State Department convoy. Blackwater guards, fearing a potential vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), fired warning shots, and when the driver of the vehicle failed to stop, they opened fire on the vehicle, killing both the driver and passenger.

From this point accounts from various witnesses and in some of the various investigations begin to diverge.

Some versions have claimed that the Blackwater guards -- and one in particular -- began to fire wildly into the crowded square after the car's occupants were killed, though the convoy was not taking any incoming fire during any part of the firefight. Other versions, such as that released in the aftermath of the shooting by the State Department's own Diplomatic Security Service, reported that the team was caught in an ambush involving 8-10 attackers wearing civilian clothes and Iraqi police uniforms. The DSS account reports that the convoy's Bearcat Tactical Armored Vehicle was disabled during the ambush and had to be towed from the scene. Other accounts combine variations of the two examples above or insert fire from helicopters, Iraqi police, and muzzle flashes from inside buildings and vehicles around the square as part of a chaotic scene.

The firefight in Nisoor Square quickly bloomed into a full-scale diplomatic row between coalition military forces, the Iraqi government, and the State Department. Blackwater was temporarily blacklisted by the Iraqi government and eventually was pushed out of Iraq. The State Department is still trying to find replacement security contractors as Blackwater's contract expires in May.

Five of the Blackwater guards in the Nisoor Square shooting face manslaughter charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department in December 2008 in what some critics call a purely political prosecution made to assuage the anger of Iraqi government officials.