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Iraqis See U.S. Contractors, Troops the Same

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's the story that made the company Blackwater USA something of a household name in America. One day last September, Blackwater security contractors rolled in to a square in western Baghdad. They were working for the U.S. State Department and had just dropped off the officials they were protecting. What followed was a shootout in which 17 Iraqis were killed. The controversial incident raised questions in this country about the role of security contractors in Iraq. It also caused a furor in Iraq.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been examining the videotaped accounts of Iraqis who witnessed the incident. She joins us now. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Who were the witnesses, generally speaking, and how did you obtain these videotapes of their stories?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there were three witnesses. There was the man who had been the traffic officer in Mansoor Square, where the shooting took place; an employee of the Trade Bank of Iraq, who was on the outskirts of the square when the incident happened; and finally a doctor who was waiting for his wife and son to pick him up from work at a nearby hospital, and he lost both of them in the shooting.

NPR got the tapes through some American lawyers who interviewed these eyewitnesses as part of a civil suit that they're bringing against Blackwater. And I just want to stress here that everything that I heard from these interviews was buttressed by what I'd heard from law enforcement sources who had been also looking into the case.

What's really striking is how these stories all fit together. In one moment you get the perspective of the traffic cop in the square. The next moment you get the point of view from a bystander. And I was struck by how much it humanized the whole story.

MONTAGNE: And do the witnesses also offer new details about what happened?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think the broad outlines of the story are still the same. The Blackwater security contractors entered the square and started shooting. Blackwater says that their guards were taking fire. These witnesses say the guards shot without provocation.

But it's the little details that each of these witnesses provide that brings this amazing consistency to the story. And most of what these new accounts provide is this emotion, this on-the-ground, in-the-moment account that connects these dots in a way we haven't heard before.

For example, we've got some tape here from one of the witnesses, the bank employee, Abdul Wahhab. He turned his car around to avoid the square when he saw the Blackwater convoy. And they allegedly rammed his car and then shot him as they left the area.

Mr. ABDUL WAHHAB: So suddenly there is something stop my car. When I turn around, I saw a big car hit my car from the right side, and the window of the front door, okay, it's broken. I feel my hands get broken. I know they are shot me. So I open the door and drop myself in the street because I thought they are - they wants to kill me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, in this video, this is three months after the incident when he was interviewed, Wahhab has this metal frame on his bandaged arm and it's holding these pins in place to help his bones set correctly. And he says the Blackwater shooting is what shattered his arm.

MONTAGNE: Dina, taken as a whole, what do these Iraqi witness accounts add up to?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what it shows really is how differently the Iraqis view the incident from the way Americans see it. The September shooting has made Americans grapple with this whole issue of guns-for-hire and how to hold contractors accountable. And we see security contractors like Blackwater as distinct from the U.S. military. But these Iraqis definitely don't. Time and again they said the distinction didn't matter to them. They're all Americans, they kept saying. And it seems to put a finer point on all of this. They aren't just contract workers; they aren't just contract security guys. They're reflecting more generally on this country and the role the U.S. seems to be playing in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Dina, thank you very much. NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. And you can hear the voices of other witnesses later today in Dina's report on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can also see a timeline of Blackwater's role in Iraq at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.