Witness Testimony Sheds Light on Blackwater The Justice Department is considering whether to bring criminal charges against Blackwater employees for a shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. NPR FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston shares the stories of three witnesses — a traffic officer, a bank employee and a doctor who lost his wife and daughter in the shooting.
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Witness Testimony Sheds Light on Blackwater

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Witness Testimony Sheds Light on Blackwater

Witness Testimony Sheds Light on Blackwater

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

The security contractor Blackwater USA is at the center of an international controversy over the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqis last September in Baghdad. In a piece to be aired later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston provides an Iraqi perspective as told by people who are actually there that day. Dina is with us now to give us a preview.

Hi, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi, nice to be here.

BRAND: Well, how did you get these stories?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the tapes came through some American lawyers who interviewed these eyewitnesses as part of a civil suit that they're bringing against Blackwater. That said, I want to stress here that everything I heard in these interviews was buttressed what I'd heard from my law enforcement sources who've looking into the case.

BRAND: So they actually took tape recorders and microphones along with them to...

TEMPLE-RASTON: And video cameras as well.

BRAND: And video cameras to interview these witnesses? Who are these witnesses?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are three main ones. One is the man who is a traffic office in that square where the shooting took place. There's an employee from the Trade Bank of Iraq, who was on the outskirts of the square when the incident happened. He was trying to leave when the Blackwater convoy allegedly rammed his car and then shot him. And then finally there's a doctor who was waiting for his wife and son to pick him up from work, and he lost both of them in that shooting.

BRAND: And Dina, paint a picture, if you will, of the traffic circle that day, because what I'm envisioning from what I've heard from the testimony and other sources is that here is a market day and there are lots of people around, and it's generally kind of a confused, chaotic, traffic-choked place.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it was, and it is. It's a big square in western Baghdad. But what's interesting about the details that these videotapes reveal, for example, before a security convoy has actually entered the square, the police officer looked overhead and there were helicopters there. They always sort of checked out the road before the security convoys went through.

So you knew one was coming if you saw helicopters overhead. So his practice was always to stop the civilian traffic and basically allow the convoys to rumble through the square. It was just easier than snarling up traffic. And that's what he did. And then the Blackwater vehicles came in and stopped in the square in a sort of semi-circle. And according to him, they started shooting.

BRAND: And the witnesses' testimony, as recorded - did you get excerpts or did you get the whole thing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, we were concerned that if we got excerpts we'd get what someone else wanted us to see. So we actually watched the whole thing - hours and hours of videotape.

Now, most people who followed this story know that the first car that took Blackwater fire was this white sedan. It was a mother and her son who was this medical student who were inside. And the medical student was shot first. And we have a little tape for you. Here's what the police officer, Ali Khalaf Salman, saw, and he was speaking through an interpreter.

Mr. ALI KHALAF SALMAN (Police Officer): (Through translator) He said he went - when he heard the woman cry, he went towards that direction, and he tried to help the medical student who was covered in blood, help him out of the car. But the mother inside was holding tight to her son.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then he says another shot rang out, and this time it killed the mother. And the car was an automatic so it kept rolling forward towards the square. And here's what he says happened next.

Mr. SALMAN: (Through translator) The car started moving by itself because it was an automatic car, towards the square, and at this moment they started shooting the car with big machine guns, and the car exploded.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, what's remarkable about all of this is that there were all these different points of view, but the stories themselves varied very little. The details that changed were mostly from they were standing, not the facts.

BRAND: And Dina, what does Blackwater have to say about this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: We gave them a chance to comment on this Iraqi version of events, and their spokeswoman provided Blackwater CEO Erik Prince's prepared congressional testimony from October 2nd. This isn't the version he delivered. When actually testified, he declined to provide any details about the day.

But what this version says was that the convoy came into the square and were fired upon. It says men with AK-47s were shooting at them, and some of them were wearing Iraqi National Police uniforms. Now, Officer Salman, who - we have his testimony - he says there were only two policeman in the square and he didn't even dare draw his gun. He laughed when the lawyers asked if had. He said if he had drawn his gun, the Blackwater guys would've shot him too.

BRAND: Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

BRAND: That's NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Her report will air tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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