In the first public airing of an investigation that remains a source of international outrage, the Justice Department on Monday unsealed its case against five private security guards, built largely around the chilling testimony of a sixth guard about the 2007 shootings that left 17 unsuspecting Iraqi civilians dead at a busy Baghdad traffic circle.
In pleading guilty to manslaughter, the sixth security guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway of California, described how he and the other guards used automatic rifles and grenade launchers to fire on cars, houses, a traffic officer and a girls’ school. In addition to those killed, there were at least 20 people injured.
The six guards were employed by Blackwater Worldwide, the largest security contractor in Iraq; the company, based in North Carolina, has not been charged in the case.
Ridgeway said in court documents that the episode in Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007 started when the guards opened fire on a white Kia sedan “that posed no threat to the convoy.”
He told investigators that although he could not clearly see the front passenger in the Kia, he noticed that the passenger was moving his arms, according to the documents.
“Defendant Ridgeway then fired multiple rounds from his M-4 assault rifle into the front passenger’s side windshield of the white sedan, killing the passenger,” the documents read. The statement went on to say that even after it was clear the driver of the sedan had been killed, several others in the convoy continued to fire on the car, and at least one of them launched a grenade.
After the car was in flames, according to the statement, “Defendant Ridgeway recognized that there had been no attempt to provide reasonable warnings to the driver of that vehicle.”
The five guards named in the indictment rejected those assertions, and in a legal move aimed at challenging the venue for the case, they surrendered to federal authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, in what is considered a more conservative, pro-military part of the country than Washington, D.C., where the Justice Department made public its case.
The indictments and the defendants’ cross-county legal maneuver set the stage for the first test of the government’s ability to hold private security contractors accountable for what it considers crimes committed overseas. They are also likely to produce protracted arguments on technical matters aimed at scuttling the case well before a jury has the opportunity to evaluate the guards’ actions.
The shooting by Blackwater guards that day ignited outrage about the use of private security contractors in war zones and severely strained relations between the United States and the fledgling Iraqi government.
The case remained a sore point during the Bush administration’s negotiations with Iraq for an agreement setting new rules for the continuing presence of U.S. troops. Ultimately a major provision of the agreement ended immunity for private contractors working in Iraq. U.S. officials restated the government’s commitment to pursue justice in the Nisour Square shootings.