Seventeen people were killed and 24 injured in the September 16 Baghdad shootout involving security teams from private firm Blackwater USA.
That death toll is significantly higher than the 10 originally reported in the incident which prompted intense criticism of Blackwater’s operations protecting American diplomats and other officials in Iraq, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Citing witnesses, Iraqi investigators and a US official, the Times said the shootout in Baghdad’s Nisour Square started when a Blackwater guard fired a single shot at a hospital pathologist driving his mother on an errand, killing him.
When the man’s car continued to roll ahead toward the Blackwater team, they let loose “an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions,” killing the mother in the car and hitting numerous fleeing Iraqis, the newspaper said.
The Times also said that shortly after the first shootout, a Blackwater convoy opened fire at another spot a few hundred meters (yards) away near the square, an incident that had previously gone unreported.
While the Times report suggested that the Blackwater team did not come under attack, as the company has claimed, it said it was not clear if Iraqi security forces themselves started firing once the incident began — which could have led the Blackwater men to believe they were being attacked.
Iraqi investigators believe that some of the gunfire also came from Blackwater helicopters which arrived overhead after the shooting began, a point which the company has denied.
On Tuesday Blackwater chief executive Erik Prince denied to a US Congress hearing that his staff ran riot like “cowboys” after a Congressional report suggested the company’s security teams in Iraq are out of control.
Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL who had previously shunned the limelight, warned lawmakers there had been a “rush to judgment” over the Nisour Square shooting.
“Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on September 16,” Prince said in prepared testimony.
“To the extent there was loss of innocent life, let me be clear that I consider that tragic,” said Prince.
Prince appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee amid a public storm over the role of for-profit contract firms in war zones, and a string of probes into Blackwater’s conduct.
The committee report found that Blackwater had been involved in at least 195 shootings in Iraq since 2005, and accused it of covering up fatal shootings involving its staff.
But Prince warned the firm was the victim of “negative and baseless allegations reported as truth.”
He added that no one, including US lawmakers on visits to Iraq, had been killed while being protected by Blackwater guards, most US veterans, while 30 employees had died while on duty.
Blackwater has earned over one billion dollars for security services to the US government since 2001, and is contracted by the State Department to protect US diplomats in Iraq.
“The September 16 shooting … is just the latest in a series of troubling Blackwater incidents,” the Congressional committee chairman Henry Waxman said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Representative Dennis Kucinich, a longshot Democratic presidential hopeful, said firms like Blackwater had no interest in promoting peace.
“If war is privatized, then private contractors have a vested interest in keeping the war going. The longer the war goes on, the more money they make.”