BAGHDAD — Iraqi victims of a deadly shooting last year in central Baghdad demanded the harshest penalty Monday for the Blackwater Worldwide guards charged in the case, saying punishment is needed to keep other security contractors from acting with impunity.
The case has been thrust back into the spotlight more than a year after the Sept. 16, 2007, shootings that killed 17 Iraqi civilians as five Blackwater guards were charged with manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using a machine gun in a crime of violence.
Hassan Jabir, a lawyer who was driving through the square on his way to court when the shooting occurred, said the indictments were a vindication.
"They kept on claiming and bragging that they were acting in response to an attack, but today, the truth was shown," he said.
Witnesses and an Iraqi investigation said the shooting on Nisoor Square was unprovoked, but Blackwater has said the guards were acting in self-defense after they were ambushed.
The five, who surrendered Monday at a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, face the prospect of 30-year mandatory prison terms. A sixth guard admitted in a plea deal to killing at least one Iraqi in the shooting.
Samir Hobi, a 41-year-old taxi driver who was wounded in the shooting, said he hoped for a more severe penalty to prevent other security contractors from acting with impunity. Seventeen Iraqis were killed, but prosecutors in the case said the evidence could only prove the guards shot 14.
"I do not know about U.S. law, but I think that they should receive death sentence because they killed innocent people and thus it should be an eye for an eye," Hobi said.
Hobi is among several Iraqis whose lives were turned upside-down when the Blackwater guards opened fire in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square.
The taxi driver said he was injured in the leg when his car was sideswiped by the Blackwater SUVs, which were driving in the wrong direction.
"They began shooting randomly without any cause. I remained inside my car and could not leave because I saw those who were leaving their cars were being killed," he said. "I want them to get the harshest punishment so that such an incident will not be repeated."
Hobi said the incident left him traumatized, and he still must wrap up his leg in order to walk.
"I have visited shrinks. The incident was horrifying," he said. "Now I cannot sleep, and if I do, I have nightmares about the incident."
The shooting became a flashpoint for Iraqis long angered over what they perceived as heavy-handed behavior by private security contractors, who enjoyed blanket immunity. A new U.S.-Iraqi security pact that takes effect on Jan. 1 lifts that immunity, although it will be retained for on-duty American troops and contractors working with them.
Khalid Ibrahim said his father, Ibrahim Abid, a 78-year-old gardener, was killed when he was caught in the shooting while driving home. Ibrahim said his mother was overwhelmed by grief and died six months later.
"The indictment of the Blackwater members is a good news for us because the killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians," he said.
The 40-year-old electrician said the family had received $30,000 in compensation but that could not make up for the fact that their lives had been devastated.
"Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in," he said. "We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting will not bring my father to life, yet we will have peace in our minds and hearts."
The shooting unfolded in a crowded square, where prosecutors say civilians were going about their lives, running errands. The heavily armed Blackwater convoy sought to shut down the intersection following a car bombing elsewhere in the city.
Many victims said they also were part of a civil lawsuit being brought against Blackwater. The North Carolina-based company is the largest security contractor in Iraq and protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
A senior Iraqi police official, meanwhile, said U.S. prosecutors will travel this week to the capital to meet with survivors and relatives of those killed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, did not provide details.
Another taxi driver, Sami Hawas, was injured in his chest, leg and left eye, but he's more concerned about his 6-year-old diabetic son who went into shock after seeing his father laid up in the hospital and still suffers from the trauma.
He said he had received $14,000 in compensation, but that was insufficient.
"The people behind the Nisoor Square attack should receive the harshest verdict, and we should be given the fair compensation. The money that was given to me did not even cover the treatment expenses," the 42-year-old said.
Contributing: Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra