Dismissal Of Blackwater Charges Infuriates Iraqis

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Iraqis are reacting angrily to Thursday's dismissal by a U.S. judge of all charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards charged in the deadly shooting of civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Meanwhile, as U.S. forces prepare to begin withdrawing from the country, casualty figures among Americans have dropped dramatically.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Some encouraging news out of Iraq today - at least from a U.S. military perspective - for the month of December 2009, there were zero American combat death, a first since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Our Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, joins us now to talk about this. And, Quil, we should point out that there were still over 200 Iraqi casualties among civilians and security forces, but zero U.S. combat death in December. Is that just good fortune or the result of a very real drawdown in U.S. forces?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, it's partly the drawdown. We've seen since June 30th when the Americans left the cities, there are just far fewer of them around, there are far fewer to target. They're going on less combat missions. And the insurgency here is much less active. We're having much lower number of attacks per day.

The attacks we have seen are against Iraqi government buildings, and those have been catastrophic. But in terms of American interaction, it's a much quieter war.

NORRIS: Let me ask you about the drawdown. The U.S. is scheduled to drawdown to less than half of its current forces of about 50,000 troops by August of 2010. Is that still on track or has the delay in the Iraqi elections changed the schedule?

LAWRENCE: That's a question we've been asking. General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces here in Iraq, spoke to reporters today and he had been saying that there would be an assessment, maybe 60 or 90 days after the election, to decide at what pace they would be drawing down troops. Well that - with this delay now, puts us into May.

Also speaking with him today was CENTCOM commander David Petraeus and he actually announced that there would be a speeding up of the troop withdrawal, specifically in Anbar province, which has been in the news recently. There was a double bombing there on Wednesday, which nearly killed the governor of the province. And it's sending a pretty clear message here that I think both Iraqis and American military are hearing that the U.S. is gaining momentum on this drawdown and the conditions on the ground really might not stop that.

NORRIS: Quil, before I let you go, speaking of sending a message, there are some news from Washington last night that are sure to have repercussions there in Iraq. The five Blackwater security guards accused of killing 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians back in 2007. All charges against them were dismissed. How is that news being received there in Baghdad?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's just trickling out. When the news was announced in Washington, it was about midnight New Year's Eve here in Baghdad. We were able to speak to some of the family members of those civilians who were simply stuck in traffic that day back in September of 2007 when the Blackwater guards open fire.

One father of a victim said that he hopes somehow the Iraqi government would still be able to bring these Americans to justice here. And the government of Baghdad has expressed an interest in that. Another relative actually broke down in tears on the phone with us, and he just said there was no justice and Iraqi lives just don't mean anything to the U.S.

Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces here, spoke about that today.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commanding General, Multi-National Force, Iraq): I worry about it because, clearly, there were innocent people killed during this attack. It's heart-wrenching. We all know it was not U.S. soldiers, sailors and the Marines who did this. It was a private security company. What I worry about is will there be backlashes against private security companies that continue to operate here.

LAWRENCE: In fact, we've already seen that backlash as the Iraqis take over security here in Baghdad. Back in October, there were four of these private contractors who actually work for the U.S. Embassy who had a disagreement with some Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint and they were beaten, some of them within inches of their lives, before they were eventually turned over to the U.S.

NORRIS: We've been speaking to NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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