In Iraq, Blackwater Is Old News

This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.



The shooting last month involving Blackwater security contractors remains big news in the United States. Not here though. Soon after the story broke, it faded from the front pages.

The truth is that no one in Baghdad was very surprised to learn that on Sept. 16 innocent civilians had been killed in a hail of American gunfire. They were more likely to be thinking, "Oh, not again." Of course some were angered, but over the past three years too many like incidents like this one have dulled people's outrage.

Besides, they have more pressing worries: how to run a household on two hours of electricity a day; what school will keep their children safe from ethnic bullying; which route home is best for avoiding kidnap. They aren't outraged about these things either. With weary determination, they just find ways to carry on.

It's true that the violence has abated somewhat. One set of statistics from Iraq's Health Ministry -- which gets its figures from by counting up corpses in the country's hospitals and morgues -- shows that the number of Iraqis who died violently dropped by almost half in September compared to August.

But people who live here believe that's partly because the ethnic cleansers -- the gun-toting militia thugs -- have succeeded. Frightened Shi'ites have moved from their homes in mixed neighborhoods to new accommodation among other Shi'ites, where they find some safety in numbers. Sunni families have done the same.

Anyway, these new, improved low-death statistics still mean that, on average, almost 30 Iraqi citizens died violent deaths every single day in the month of September.

As many as 17 of them were shot to death on the 16th when the Blackwater security guards opened up with automatic weapons in heavy traffic. We have tried to do our own detective work around the incident. From Iraqi witness statements, we now have some idea what people saw and heard, but we're nowhere close to knowing what really happened, in what order, and who is to blame. That's a job for the FBI and the joint Iraqi-American investigative task force.

Our inquiries, though, have exposed once again how tragedy is layered in this deeply dysfunctional city. One of the witnesses to the shooting -- let's call him Ahmed -- was himself the manager of an Iraqi security company. He was driving as fast as he could through the clogged traffic of Nisour Square that day, trying to follow an ambulance.

A few minutes beforehand, a car bomb had exploded (the same car bomb the Blackwater convoy was responding to), injuring one of his employees. The ambulance loaded the man onto a stretcher and sped off to nearby Yarmouk Hospital.

At least, that's where the attendants said they were going. But sometimes, kidnappers use ambulances to collect victims. The patient/hostage simply vanishes somewhere between the scene of the accident and the emergency ward.

So Ahmed, concentrating on the safety of his employee, suddenly drove into a barrage of gunfire. Terrified people were diving behind cars that gave no cover at all from the large caliber bullets -- and flinging themselves, facedown, into the dusty road.

The shooting went on for seconds … maybe minutes. Then the Blackwater convoy drove away. So, eventually, did Ahmed.

In America, this shooting has turned out to be a sort of Perfect Storm that continues to rage. At last, it's front page news that no security contractor has ever faced prosecution for the numerous killings of innocent civilians in Iraq. Finally, the politicians are paying attention.

Here in Baghdad, though, it was just one more calamity. The victims are buried. Their families had to line up for a long time to buy enough gasoline to attend the funerals. Now they're wondering how big a bribe they will have to pay to get proper death certificates, or any kind of compensation.

Ahmed found out that his employee had indeed been delivered to the emergency room. However, he is in a coma with severe head injuries in a hospital controlled by a Shi'ite militia. He probably won't live. Everyone else will somehow carry on.
  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."

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