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Some Iraqis Disappointed at Blackwater Convictions

FILE - Former Blackwater Worldwide guard Evan Liberty, right, arrives at federal court in Washington.
FILE - Former Blackwater Worldwide guard Evan Liberty, right, arrives at federal court in Washington.

Reactions in Baghdad have been mixed to the convictions of four former Blackwater security guards found guilty in the 2007 shooting of more than 30 Iraqi civilians.

Some Iraqis welcomed the U.S. jury’s decision on Wednesday. But others, like Ali Abbas, whose brother and nephew were killed in Nisour Square in a hail of gunfire by Blackwater guards, were disappointed that all four guards were not sentenced to life in prison.

“I'm not satisfied with the sentence. They are killers. They killed innocent people who did nothing. I had hopes they would all get life imprisonment,” Abbas told VOA on the phone from Baghdad.

A U.S. jury on Wednesday found Blackwater guard Nicholas Slatten guilty of first degree murder, which can carry a life sentence. The three other guards, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

The State Department hired Blackwater to protect American diplomats in Iraq. The company quickly acquired a reputation for its aggressive tactics, and the September 16, 2007 shootings caused an international furor and raised questions about the role of defense contractors in Iraq at the time.

Pat Bergstresser, Director of the State Department's International Press Center in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006, said she hopes the jury's decision will bring some closure for the victims' families.

"From what I know, the situation was very complicated and dangerous at that time, and because of the danger and threats, some people reacted without thinking, but hopefully Iraqis will see the convictions as accountability," she said.

The former Blackwater guards had argued in their defense that they were operating in a high risk environment, and were responding to a car bomb that had threatened one of their clients. The Nisour Square incident, they said, was triggered by a car moving forward out of traffic. Car bombs were one of the biggest threats to security convoys at the time.

Doug Brooks, president emeritus of the International Stability Operations Association and a key player in the development of an international code of conduct for private security companies, says the sense of danger in war zones is always immense.

"But then again,” he said, “when you hire companies to provide security, you want them to be professionals and you create strict rules, and rules like that create higher levels of danger, but that's part of the job."

Private security companies operating in Iraq at the time were seen to frequently overlap with the military. But Brooks says the rules of engagement were always clear: the military could use lethal force pro-actively, but security companies were hired to protect.

Retired Brigadier General Ismail al-Sodani, former Iraqi military attache to Washington, said the Nisour Square incident showed a total lapse in understanding those limitations.

"The details of the Blackwater killing shows that some of the Blackwater guards had limited training and knowledge of the rules of engagement. The fact that the United States judiciary system found them guilty shows that it is unbiased and seeks justice for those victims."

Security company professionals like Andrew Kain, the CEO of AKE Group based in Hereford, England, says it is important to make sure that all companies working in high risk areas are held accountable.

Otherwise, he says, countries hiring those companies risk alienating the very population they are trying to help.

"If you don't win the trust of the local population to one extent or another, you will fail. It's pure and simple common sense,” he told VOA. “If you are working in their environment and their country, you have to demonstrate a degree of accountability. You can't be seen working to different standards."

Blackwater was founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL. The company subsequently changed its name to Xe, then to Academi in 2011.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.