A Little Blackwater History

Blackwater USA

Blackwater USA is the private American security company whose tactics are under scrutiny following a series of high-profile shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians. The company is just one of many such mercenary outfits that provide bodyguard details for foreign (and, sometimes, Iraqi) VIPs. Such contractors are immune from prosecution under Iraqi law. Only recently did the U.S. House pass a bill that put Blackwater and the like under the jurisdiction of U.S. criminal law.

A number of Iraqis I know could fill this blog with harrowing tales of their encounters with Blackwater and other security contractors. These are only my recollections:

You couldn’t miss the Blackwater contractors who lived in our hotel in Baghdad in summer 2003. They were living and breathing action figures, a band of GI Joe-looking guys who favored cargo pants, microfiber shirts, hunting knives and foldable machine guns that fit into discreet black carrying cases.

They were nice enough, at first. They hit on all the female journalists; they drank with our male colleagues. They sunned themselves by the hotel pool, showing off their washboard abs and recounting war stories from stints in the Marines or Navy SEALs. I recall them as young, good-looking thrill-seekers – as harmless as the enlisted guys I knew from back home in Oklahoma. While their leers grew tiresome, I admit there was something comforting in having the heavily armed X-Men around in case the stuff hit the fan.

Over time, however, our Blackwater pals wore out their welcome. I can’t pinpoint when it happened. Was it one too many beer-drenched party that upset the Iraqi families who lived in neighboring homes? Was it the parade of young Iraqi prostitutes that crept out of their rooms when the sun rose? Was it when their speeding SUV convoys began cutting down any Iraqi with the misfortune to block their path?

Our own security adviser, an older Brit who sneered at what he considered Blackwater’s unprofessional behavior, was conducting his rounds late one night when he noticed shadowy figures lurking about the hotel. From his balcony, he later told me, he observed the fully armed, camouflaged men creeping around corners as if ready to attack. Alarmed, our guard took the safety lock off his weapon and prepared to fire.

Then he realized it was the Blackwater boys, apparently drunk and playing war games after dark. Our security adviser was livid and lodged complaints with the hotel. I don’t remember whether he also contacted Blackwater. In any case, this wasn’t the first time managers had received such gripes and the Blackwater team was kicked out.

Some of the Blackwater contractors had moved into the hotel next door. Among them was Jerko Zovco, one of the four guards killed in a brutal ambush of a Blackwater convoy in Fallujah in March 2004. Some of my journalist friends knew Zovco quite well and were devastated at images of the four charred and mutilated corpses dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates.

Blackwater finally moved out of our neighborhood and into the Green Zone, but the company remained a daily part of our lives – and the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

I ran into the contractors escorting U.S. officials to the Bank of Baghdad, where Blackwater commandeered the entrance and ordered Iraqi patrons out of the bank. I saw them guarding American diplomats in Najaf, where I teased a Blackwater contractor for carrying nunchucks and sporting black greasepaint under his eyes. (He told me he was in Iraq for the six-figure paycheck and the chance to be assigned to guard Victoria’s Secret models at the lingerie company’s annual fashion show.)

“They think they’re bloody Rambo!” our exasperated British security adviser would say.

Tuesday was ladies-only day at the pool of the nearby Babylon Hotel – the only time when middle-class Iraqi women could strip off their modest cloaks to swim and sunbathe within the privacy of the hotel’s tall walls. On more than one occasion, Blackwater interrupted a serene ladies’ day at the Babylon. The company’s tiny helicopters with gunners dangling out the sides would dip perilously close to the outdoor pool, presumably for a rare glimpse of Iraqi women in bikinis. The Muslim women screamed and reached for towels to cover themselves.

One day, when it was still safe enough for me to drive around Baghdad, I was behind the wheel of a borrowed car with a couple of Iraqi girlfriends. We were returning to the hotel from a shopping trip, happy and with the music turned up so loud that we failed to hear the warning honks until a private security convoy was running us off the road so it could pass. I panicked and froze as the guards trained their guns on us and forced us on to the shoulder. Long after they sped off, we sat in the car shaken and grateful that the guards had “allowed” us to live.

Were they from Blackwater? I can’t say for sure, but in subsequent conversations we always referenced “the time Blackwater almost shot us to death for listening to music.” By then, Blackwater had become the symbol of out-of-control security contractors, the American cowboys who terrorized Baghdad streets with impunity.

A few months later, I was dropped off at the gates of the Green Zone to meet a security contractor friend who worked for a Blackwater rival. I sat in the car with my Iraqi driver, waiting for my American friend to show up and escort me into the Green Zone, when a convoy of SUVs suddenly blazed onto the scene. Gunners hung out the windows, shouting for the Iraqi civilians to “move!” An Iraqi man failed to get out of the way in time. My driver and I watched as the security guards fired a single shot through his windshield.

The convoy was gone by the time the Iraqi man’s car door opened. He stumbled out, clutching his bleeding chest, and collapsed on the street. Other Iraqis loaded the shooting victim into a car and left for the hospital just as my American friend showed up. My friend shared my outrage and made it his personal mission to track down the convoy and force the contractors to file an incident report.

We raced through the Green Zone, ignoring the posted speed limits, until I spotted the same convoy pulling into parking spaces outside the Republican Palace. The contractors poured out of their SUVs, stripping off body armor and wiping sweat from their foreheads.

“That’s them,” I told my friend, who identified the guards as Blackwater employees.

He urged me to go confront them, and I begged him to accompany me. Minutes before, I had seen them shoot a man and leave him for dead in the street. I wasn’t about to march up to them on my own. My friend refused to get involved; he’d tracked them down, he told me, and it was up to me to approach them. I chickened out. In the end, we took down details of the convoy and my friend turned our notes over to the U.S. embassy.

From a distance, we followed the guards inside the palace and all the way to the cafeteria. I’m supposed to be a neutral journalist, I know, but I felt an indescribable rage when I saw the men head straight for the salad bar.

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