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AMY GOODMAN: We bring you today an explosive Democracy Now! exclusive. Last weekend, Vice-President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. Justice Department would appeal the dismissal of the criminal case against five Blackwater operatives accused of being behind the infamous Nissour Square massacre in Baghdad in September of 2007. Some 17 Iraqis were killed and more than 20 wounded in 15 minutes of sustained gunfire. On New Year’s Eve, Federal Judge Urbina threw out the cases, but not for lack of evidence or because the men are not guilty. Urbina charged prosecutors committed gross misconduct in the case and violated the constitutional rights of the Blackwater men.
Despite Biden’s assurances that the US would seek justice for the Iraqi victims, legal analysts say the appeal is an uphill battle and Blackwater’s lawyers predict it will fail. Nissour Square was the highest profile deadly incident involving Blackwater or any private war contractor and was supposed to be the case that stuck, the case showed U.S. would hold private security companies accountable for their alleged crimes. The indictment of the Blackwater shooters was the first time the Justice Department taken any meaningful action against the company. To the Iraqi victims, the New Year’s Eve dismissal was shattering. Adding insult to injury, several of the Iraqi victims say they were pressured into a settlement with Blackwater earlier this month for what many considered a paltry sum.
As it stands now, there’s only one remaining legal case against Blackwater in the United States, a lawsuit brought by Mohammed Kinani, father of the youngest victim that day, his 9-year-old son Ali who was shot in the head and killed by Blackwater forces. Ali’s father may well be the one man standing now between Blackwater and total impunity for the Nissour Square massacre. “Democracy Now!” correspondent Jeremy Scahill, the National Security reporter for The Nation Magazine has conducted an in-depth investigation of the massacre and of 9-year-old Ali Kinani’s death. His story for The Nation this week is called “Blackwater’s Youngest Victim.” He files this exclusive report with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I not just remembering the scene. I’m reliving it as if it were happening now. I will never forget those minutes… So whatever you ask me, I will answer with absolute clarity.
All I could hear from my car were gunshots and the sound of glass shattering. And the sound of tires blwon out with bullets. I started to scream, “They killed my son, they killed my son.” What can I tell you? It was like the End of Days With cold blood and stone hearts, the continued shooting.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Baghdad, September 16, 2007. Shortly before noon, a convoy of four armored vehicle departs the Green Zone, the heavily fortified U.S. base in Iraq. The men inside of the vehicles were elite private soldiers working for Blackwater. Their code name: Raven 23. The men had defied orders from their superiors to remain in the Green Zone and proceeded on to the streets of Baghdad. As they departed, they were again told to return to base, but they didn’t. Within minutes, Blackwater Raven 23 would arrive at the congested Baghdad intersection known as Nissour Square. 15 minutes later, at least 17 Iraqi civilians would be dead, more than 20 others wounded in a shooting that would down in infamy as Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday.
You probably have never heard his name, but you likely know something about how 9-year-old Ali Mohammed Hafed Kinani died. He was the youngest person killed by Blackwater forces at Nissour Square. To this day, Blackwater has never faced justice for killing Ali and the other Iraqis that day. But his father Mohammed who was with Ali in Nissour Square, is determined to change that.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I want the truth. I want the truth to be known and criminals punished.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: This is the story of the death of young Ali Kinani and his father has provided us with the most detailed eyewitness account of the Nissour Square massacre ever given to a U.S. media outlet.
*Mohammed Hafed Abdul Reza Kinani and his wife Fatima lived with their three children in Baghdad. Mohammad ran his family’s auto parts business and he adored his youngest son Ali whom his family affectionally called by his kid nickname ‘Allawi.’
MOHAMMED KINANI: He would sleep on my arm. He was nine and a half years old, but he still slept on my arm. He had his own room, but never slept alone.
*When he turned nine, I told him it was time to stop using my arm as his pillow. I said, ‘Son, you’re getting older, go sleep with your brothers, in your bed in your room. Your name is Ali, we used to call you Allawi, but you’ll be a man soon.’ So he said, ‘As you wish, father.’ He always said that. So, I looked and saw his feet under the door. I called him in. He opened the door and said, ‘Dad, I’m Allawi, not Ali.’ He was telling me he was still a child. After that, he kept sleeping on my arm. It was the only pillow he ever had.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: When U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad in April of 2003, Mohammad proudly took his son to greet the men he called their liberators, the US military. Mohammed was that rare personification of the neoconservative narrative about the US invasion.
MOHAMMED KINANI: The first day the American Army entered Baghdad, I handed out juice and candy in the street. To celebrate our liberation from Saddam.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Before September 16, 2007, Mohamemd had never heard of Blackwater. Now he thinks of them and that day every waking moment. He remembers Ali was not supposed to be in his car that day. Mohammed had just pulled away from his family’s home on his way to pick up his sister Jenan and her children for a visit. Ali came running out of the House.
MOHAMMED KINANI: He was quiet the whole ride, but then we passed a newly built park… a garden. So he turned to me and asked, ‘Daddy, when are you going to bring us here?’ I told him, ’Next week, hopefully, if God wills it.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Mohammed and Ali picked up Jenan and her three children and made their way back home. The return journey would bring them through Nissour Square. When Mohamed found himself in a traffic jam at the square that that day he thought it was a U.S. military checkpoint. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him when he saw the armored vehicles block off traffic.
MOHAMMED KINANI: One of the guards gestured towards us with his hands. The gesture means ‘stop,’ so we stopped. I, and all the cars in front and behind me stopped. We followed their orders. At that point, I didn’t even know they were Blackwater. I didn’t know it was a security company. I thought was some sort of American army unit. Or maybe a Military Police unit. In any case, we followed their orders.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: As Mohammed and his family waited in the SUV, the man in the car next to them was frantic, "I think someone was shot in that car in front of you he told Mohammed. It was then Mohammed watched in horror as Blackwater gunners for no apparent reason blew up a white Kia sedan front of their eyes. Inside, Mohammed would later learn were a young Iraqi medical student and his mother.
MOHAMMED KINANI: There was absolutely no shooting or any sign of danger for us or Blackwater. No one was in the slightest danger. Suddenly, in a flash of a second, they started shooting in all directions. And it wasn’t warning shots, they were shooting as if it were fighting in the field. By the time they stopped shooting, the car looked like a sieve. This is the only way to describe it, because it was truly riddled with bullets. They finished with the first car and turned their guns on us. It turned into the apocalypse.
JEREMY SCHAHILL:As chaos and blood flooded the square, Mohammed remembers the fate of one man in particular who tried to flee the Blackwater gunmen.
MOHAMMED KINANI: Everyone was trying to escape. Whoever wasn’t shot dead in their car just wanted to escape somehow. When one man tried to run, they shot him. He dropped dead on the spot. He was on the ground bleeding and were shooting non-stop. They shot like you’re trying to kill everyone they could see. He sank into his own blood. And every minute, they would go back and shoot him again and I could see his body shake with every bullet. He was dead, but his body shook with the bullets. He would shoot at someone else and then go back to shooting at this dead man. This man is dead in a pool of blood! Why would you keep shooting him?
JEREMY SCHAHILL: As Mohammed sat in his SUV with his 9-year-old son Ali, his sister Jenan and her three children, he realized that attempting to escape was not an option. As the shooting intensified, Mohammad yelled for the kids to get down. He and Jenan did the same.
MOHAMMED KINANI: Bullets were coming from the right and the left. My younger sister was trying to cover me with her body. So I pulled out of her grip and covered her with my body to protect her. I have pictures that show the head rest of my sister’s seat is full of bullet holes. It was horrific- extremely terrifying. I still wake up from sleep startled… ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘Why would they do this? We were civilians sitting in our cars. Most of the cars had families in them, so why did this happen? I kept hearing Boom, Boom, Boom in my car. Bullets were flying everywhere. It was horrific, horrific… I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it.
After they killed everyone in sight, my sister and I kept still. I had her rest her head on my lap and my body was on top of her. We would sneak a peek from under the dashboard. The continued shooting here and there, killing this and that one. Then it cleared. Nothing was moving on the street. Only the Blackwater men were moving. Then, they drove off.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: It seemed to Mohammed a miracle had blessed his car. We are alive, he thought. As the Blackwater forces retreated, Mohammed told Jenan he was going to check on the man who had been repeatedly shot by Blackwater. It was then Mohammed’s world crumbled.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I opened my door and got out. When I got up, my nephew said, ‘Uncle, Allawi is dead.’ My sister started screaming and I turned to look at Ali. I turned and saw his window was broken. It was shot. I looked at him in his head was resting on the side of the door. I opened the door to see if he was okay. I opened the door and he started falling out. I stood there in shock, watching him as the door opened and his brain fell to the ground between my feet. I looked at his brain on the ground and pushed him back into the car. I told my sister that they had blown his brains out.
I started to scream, ‘They killed my son. They killed my son.’ I was turning and screaming. People were standing on the roof of a nearby saying, ‘Get out, Get out.’ But I was in another world. They killed my son and I was looking at his brain. I did not know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. I reached through the window to check his heart and it was beating. I told my sister, who said, "Let’s rush him to the hospital. Maybe he still can make it!’ But I knew his brain was on the ground. He’s gone. I turned the car which had no water, no tires and I spun it around. I drove towards Yarmouk Hospital.
At the hospital, Mohammad was told that because of Ali’s severe head injuries, an ambulance would need to rush him across town to a neurological hospital.
MOHAMMED KINANI: Riding in the ambulance, I was completely destroyed. My son was dying in front of my eyes. He was suffering. His arms were shaking and almost pulled out the IVs, so I held his hands still. He died. What can I say? My son.. up until the night before his death, my son never slept alone.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: That night, Mohammed returned home and his father greeted him at the door.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I love my father. He is my friend, my life and my father. He hugged me tight and said, son, be a man, don’t break down. Everyone else, my mother, my sisters—they all broke down in tears. My wife told me, ‘I want my son for you. You took him, now give him back.’ She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘It is you who took my son. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I want him back. What can I say? I don’t know what to say. I was speechless.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Mohammed later returned to Nissour Square to gather what pieces he could find of Ali skull and brain and the family laid him to rest in the Shiia holy city of Najaf.
MOHAMMED KINANI: My son died innocent, at an age when there are no strings attached. He flew up to heaven like a white dove.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: After Ali died, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad contacted Mohammed, offering his family a $10,000 condolence payment, making clear it was not a remedy for what happened and not a substitute for any potential legal action against the shooters. Initially, Mohammed Kinani refused the money, but the embassy pursued his family, urging them to take it. They eventually did, but on one condition, half the money to be donated to the family of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. Mohammed’s wife Fatima delivered the gift to the U.S. embassy.
MOHAMMED KINANI: This is a gift from Ali’s family to whichever family you choose, the family of any soldier who lost his life for the sake of Iraq. I want to give it as a gift. I know it is insignificant, but it is an emotional and moral gesture from us to them.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Mohammed carries around a letter sent by General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Your substantial generosity on behalf of the family’s of fallen American soldiers, Odierno wrote, has touched me deeply. While Mohammed and his family mourned the death of their son, half a world away, in Washington, D.C., Blackwater’s owner Erik Prince was summoned before the U.S. Congress. Blackwater, Prince said, had been the victim of an armed ambush by Iraqi insurgents at Nissour Square and defended the conduct of his men saying that they “Acted appropriately at all times.”
REP. DANNY DAVIS: You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don’t you?—you do admit the Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don’t you?
ERIK PRINCE: No, I disagree. There been times guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the package, they are trying to get away from danger. There could be ricochets, there are traffic accidents, yes. This is war.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Mohammed watched those hearings live and was outraged.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I wish to ask the head of Blackwater, did he think that this child was a threat to his company? This giant company with all the biggest weapons, guns and airplanes? Was this boy a threat to them?
JEREMY SCHAHILL: At the hearing, a State Department document was produced that revealed before Nissour Square, the department had coordinated with Blackwater to set a low payout for Iraqi shooting victims because, in the words of a department security official, it was too high, “Iraqis may try to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.”
Despite Prince’s brazen denials, the thought of suing Blackwater did not cross Mohammad’s mind. He did not want anyone’s money. He readily cooperated with U.S. military and federal investigators and believed that justice would be done in America.
Then he says, Blackwater steps in. February 2008, ABC News did a brief story about Mohamed. The day the story was posted online, Blackwater attorney tried to take legal action against the network. Accusing ABC of defamation. What outraged Mohammed, was Blackwater denied its forces killed Ali, claiming instead he was killed by a “stray bullet”, possibly fired by U.S. military an hour “after Blackwater personnel had departed the scene.”
Blackwater claimed Ali was hit by a warning shot that ricocheted and killed him and it was not even possible, the Blackwater lawyer claimed, that Blackwater was responsible. Shortly after that, Mohamed said an Iraqi attorney approached him, but was not just any lawyer. Ja’far al-Musawi was the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal which prosecuted Saddam Hussein. He was “the” Iraqi lawyer. Mohammed agreed to meet with Musawi and Blackwater’s regional manager. He says they offered him $20,000.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I said, I’m not taking a penny from you. I want nothing. I asked them if it wanted to resolve the problem and they said yes. I said, okay, give me a pen and paper. I said, look, I have the paper and a can sign it and waive all of my rights. All of them. I will sign now, but under one condition. ‘I want the head of Blackwater to apologize publicly to me in America.’ And say, ‘We killed your son and we’re sorry.’ That’s all I want. I told them I don’t want 50 or 20 thousand dollars. I just want him to publically apologize. That would be enough for me.
Blackwater’s regional manager said ‘We do not apologize. We do not apologize.’ I said, ‘You kill my son, and go on TV and publicly accuse me and all Iraqis of being mercenaries who intentionally have you kill us for the compensation. And you were under oath in front of Congress, and you tell me you will not apologize! What do you want, then? Why did you bring me here?’ He said, ’No, we will not apologize."
JEREMY SCHAHILL:Mohammed then confronted the Blackwater manager about the company’s claim the US military, not Blackwater, may have killed Ali.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I told the manager, ‘My son was killed in the car with me. How can you say it was the military? Do you want to stain the reputation the American army? The American Army is innocent of this. Why would you blame this on them? Do you want us to hate them more? Aren’t you an American company? And this is your national military? Why would you do this to your own? I told them, ‘We love the American army more than you do’.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Mohamad threw the pen and paper at the Blackwater manage and left the meeting.
MOHAMMED KINANI: I had no choice but to go the legal route and take things to court. To get justice. To bring closures for the victims’ families. And to deter other criminals from committing the same crime.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: September 15, 2009, the night before the second anniversary of Ali’s death, Mohammed Kinani sued Blackwater in its home state of North Carolina, along with Blackwater’s owner Erik Prince and the six men he believes are responsible for Ali’s death. Mohammed is represented by Paul Dickinson, and Gary Mauney. They are not political lawyers. The nationality and citizenship of their client is irrelevant, as is the country housing the scene of the alleged crimes.
PAUL DICKINSON: The U.S. army was over there fighting for people just like Muhammed. And he’s come here with a heart full belief in the justice system in the United States.
GARY MAUNEY: This is not a case about national security at all. These were people who are in a public square in Iraq, much like the main intersection in Charlotte, North Carolina is called Trade and Tron, its the primary intersection in the city where we live. It’s the equivalent place to where this occurred. The Blackwater employees were in that square and they opened fire
JEREMY SCHAHILL: Dickinson and Mauney have gathered volumes of evidence and interviewed scores of eyewitnesses. Perhaps the greatest piece of evidence comes from one of the men they are suing, Jeremy Ridgeway, a turret gunner on the Raven 23 team that day pled guilty to killing an unarmed civilian. Mauney points to Ridgeway’s own sworn statement.
GARY MAUNEY: He said Raven 23 was not supposed to be there, and what they did was not justified by any provocation whatsoever. This is not some lawyer making hyperbolic argument. This is Mr. Ridgeway was who was there, working for Blackwater at the time.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: In addition to Jeremy Ridgeway’s statement, Mauney and Dickinson plan to introduce statements made by other Blackwater guards in the square that day, who said they were horrified at what their colleagues did, saying that they shot at civilians for nothing and for no reason. With the Justice Department’s criminal case against Blackwater very much up in the air, Mohammed Kinani could well be the one man left standing between Blackwater and total impunity for the Nissour Square massacre.
GARY MAUNEY: This is the last case standing in the United States right now. This is it. This is it.
JEREMY SCHAHILL:As we wrap up our time to gether, Mohammed Kinani shows us a cell phone video of young Ali Kinani hopping around a swimming pool with his cousins and siblings with a smile year to year, approaches Mohammed’s cell phone camera and says to his dad dad, I am Allawi.
ALI KINANI: I am Allawi, I am Allawi.
JEREMY SCHAHILL: For “Democracy Now!” This is Jeremy Scahill with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films.