AWASHINGTON — The witness wore a suit with no tie, the top button of his gray shirt undone. He had told this story many times, and now that he was in the United States, telling his story at last to a jury, he appeared neither hurried nor anxious.
Sarhan Deab Abdul Moniem, the witness, was a traffic officer that day in September 2007, when a convoy of Blackwater Worldwide trucks pulled into his traffic circle in Baghdad and started shooting. He held up two hands, showing jurors how he had pleaded with the American security contractors to stop. Through an interpreter, he spoke in a matter-of-fact way about running toward a victim inside a white Kia sedan.
“There was a lady. She was screaming and weeping about her son and asking for help,” Mr. Moniem said. He showed jurors how she had cradled her dead son’s head on her shoulder. “I asked her to open up the door so I could help her. But she was paying attention only to her son.”
More than four dozen Iraqi citizens like Mr. Moniem are scheduled to travel to Washington in the coming months to testify against the Americans who they say fired wildly on unarmed citizens, leaving 17 Iraqis dead. For years, they have waited as the case wound its way through the American court system. In a courtroom steps away from the Capitol, they are finally having their say. The Justice Department says it will be the largest number of foreign witnesses to testify in a criminal trial.
Video | The Blackwater Shooting Witnesses shed new light on the killing of 17 Iraqis by American contractors in Baghdad.
“Significant resources have been expended to ensure the witnesses have access to the U.S. court system,” said Andrew C. Ames, a spokesman for the F.B.I., which is coordinating the travel arrangements.
Family members and survivors have said they see this trial as a test of America’s judicial system. And though they have expressed frustration and skepticism, dozens have volunteered to take part.
They are not all as understated as Mr. Moniem. The government’s first witness, Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, broke down last week as he talked about his 9-year-old son, Ali, who was shot in the head while riding in the back seat of the family car. Mr. Kinani sobbed so uncontrollably that Judge Royce C. Lamberth sent the jury out of the room. The next day, one juror said she had been too haunted to sleep. The judge excused her from service.
The Nisour Square shooting was a signature point in the Iraq war, one that inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad and contributed to the impression that Americans were reckless and unaccountable. The Iraqi government wanted to prosecute the security contractors in Iraq, but the American government refused to allow it.
A car that burned in September 2007 when Blackwater Worldwide security contractors opened fire in a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 people.
ALI YUSSEF / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE — GETTY IMAGES
When the Justice Department indicted five former Blackwater guards in 2008 and reached a plea deal with a sixth, prosecutors said it was a message that, whether in a war zone or not, nobody was above the law.
But the case has suffered repeated setbacks, frequently of the government’s own making. In Iraq, the delays contributed to the impression that Blackwater operated with impunity. Prosecutors ultimately dropped charges against one guard, citing a lack of evidence, and have gone to trial against the remaining four: Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty, Nicholas A. Slatten and Paul A. Slough.
For the most part, the horrors of the Nisour Square shooting are uncontested. Nobody disputes that a team of Blackwater guards, working for the State Department, drove four armored trucks into a busy traffic circle and opened fire. It is clear that it all began with the white Kia, and that by the time the shooting subsided, there were many dead.
But the four former security guards standing trial — three on manslaughter charges, one on a murder charge — say they believed they were being ambushed in the traffic circle. A car bomb had just detonated a short distance away and the white Kia, defense lawyers argue, looked like a potential follow-up bomb lurching toward the convoy. The guards also said they were under fire from insurgents.
Defense lawyers hope that inconsistencies in the Iraqis’ stories will raise doubts about what happened. Mr. Moniem, for instance, said the first shots came from one of the gunners standing in a turret atop one of the vehicles. Prosecutors say it was Mr. Slatten, a former Army sniper, who fired the first shots from inside his armored truck. His murder charge hangs on whether that is true.
That is the risk of having such a long list of witnesses. With so many people recalling a shooting from so many vantage points, there will be inconsistencies. The prosecution is counting on these inconsistencies fading away as witness after witness agrees that the shooting was unprovoked and the victims were unarmed.
Majed Salman Abdel Kareem al-Gharbawi, a 55-year-old commodity trader, testified Tuesday that he was riding in a small truck with his friend Osama Abbas when the shooting started directly in front of them. Mr. Gharbawi tried to run away and was shot in the abdomen. As he slumped to the ground, he said, he saw another man who had been shot.
“He was screaming and praying to god, for Allah to save him from this calamity,” Mr. Gharbawi testified. In Islam, he explained, it is customary for the dying to say a final prayer. “So I told him, let’s do that together.”
As Mr. Gharbawi lay in the street, Mr. Abbas also tried to run. He did not make it far. “His body was shaking violently as the bullets were piercing him and hitting the sidewalk,” Mr. Gharbawi said. He said the American security guards kept shooting at Mr. Abbas even after he was on the ground, clearly dead.
The F.B.I. will not discuss details of the arrangements it has made for the Iraqis. In court documents, the Justice Department describes the effort as “a significant logistical challenge” involving coordination with State Department and immigration officials. Because it is impossible to predict when exactly a witness’s testimony will begin and end, some people are inevitably on call, waiting to see if they will need to go to court.
On the third day of Mr. Moniem’s testimony, T. Patrick Martin, the prosecutor, apologized and said he had just a few more questions. Mr. Moniem said there was no need to rush.
“All my time is to you,” he said, smiling. “As long as we are trying to arrive at what is right and helpful to people, I am here and at your service.”
Source: The New York Times