The last chance for victims of the bloody Nisoor Square shootings to have their day in court may rest on a Charlotte firm's lawsuit accusing Blackwater of reckless conduct in Iraq.
Mohammed Kinani, an Iraqi businessman whose 9-year-old son died in the 2007 shootings, told the Observer this week the N.C.-based security firm has threatened him and offered him $20,000 to stop asking questions.
"I said I don't want anything, " Kinani said. "All I need is for the Blackwater president to apologize for killing of my son. They refused to apologize."
The incident, where 30 civilians were killed or injured, remains a flashpoint over the use of private contractors in battle zones. Five Blackwater guards were accused in 14 deaths at the busy traffic circle outside Baghdad.
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Blackwater earned hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts in Iraq, where contractors outnumber U.S. troops. The firm eventually lost its license to work there.
One former guard, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, said in court papers that a convoy from the security firm, now called Xe, went to Nisoor Square outside the fortified Green Zone to provide security after reports of a car bomb a mile away.
Blackwater says guards shot in self-defense. But Kinani and others said the gunmen were unprovoked.
The lawsuit, filed in Raleigh last year by SouthPark firm Lewis & Roberts, is the last Nisoor Square case pending in the U.S.
Other more-publicized cases have fallen away.
A federal judge on Dec. 31 dismissed manslaughter charges against five other guards, a ruling the Justice Department appealed Friday. Vice President Biden announced the appeal last week while visiting Iraq in response to anger there over the dismissals.
In early January, a larger group of survivors and families of those killed settled their civil suit against Blackwater. Most reportedly agreed to payments ranging from $20,000 to $100,000, though the attorney in that case, Susan Burke of Washington, D.C., would not comment on the amounts.
Kinani said Blackwater offered to meet with him and eventually offered money, but he refused both gestures. His suit against Blackwater includes families of two other victims killed and three injured survivors. Attorney Gary Mauney said none of the firm's clients have accepted settlements.
In an interview, Kinani described the death of his youngest child, Ali.
Speaking in Arabic through a translator, Kinani said he never intended to take his son on the drive that morning, until Ali begged him, "Daddy, I want to come with you."
Inseparable pair drove into trouble
Kinani, now 59, admits that he doted on Ali, the youngest of three boys and a girl. He said the two were separated for any length of time only once, when Ali visited relatives in Syria. At home, he had his own room, but slept with his parents. "My arms were his pillows, " Kinani said.
So Kinani obliged that September 2007 morning when the boy asked to accompany him. Kinani had just dropped his father off at their auto parts store. He reluctantly took Ali along on a trip to pick up Kinani's sister.
Kinani worried about sectarian violence in the Sunni area where his sister lived, but they arrived safely. His sister and her children got inside, and Kinani headed home.
With Kinani driving, here is how they sat in the four-door 1996 Isuzu: His sister in the front passenger seat, and the four children across the back - her two young boys and one girl, then Ali, behind his father.
Kinani said he passed three Iraqi police checkpoints and security was high by the time they entered the traffic circle in Nisoor Square. He said he heard far-away gunfire. Traffic slowed to a crawl.
Ahead, he saw a large armed vehicle blocking the road. Two gunmen were on top. They wore military clothes and Kinani thought they were American soldiers. Investigators later said they were security guards. One man put two fists in the air, Kinani said, a motion for all the cars to stop.
Kinani recalled someone shouting - "They are shooting at the front" - and then chaos.
Bewildering barrage of gunfire
Kinani said after destroying the front car with gunfire, the gunmen turned their aim toward the rest of the square, to cars and people running away. To Kinani, they were shooting "just absolutely to shoot. They just wanted to shoot." No one fired back, he said.
Kinani said he saw people falling, people dying, cars getting hit - boom, boom, boom - sounds of gunfire, shattered glass and tires exploding.
Why are they shooting us, his sister asked? Maybe somebody shot at them somewhere else and they are seeking revenge, Kinani recalled saying.
She pulled his head down and laid over him on the driver's seat. Bullets hit the headrest of her seat of where she had just been sitting, her life spared by protecting him.
Awkward, he thought. He should be protecting his younger sister, not the other way around, and he put her beneath him. A bullet shattered his rear window.
When finally the shooting stopped, Kinani said he opened his door to get out. He looked at his son's head lying against the back door, and as he opened it, Ali's body fell with the door.
"They killed my son, they killed my son, " Kinani recalled screaming.
Family celebrated Saddam's overthrow
When the U.S. liberated Iraq in 2003, Kinani said his elated family celebrated with cake, sweets and juice. Iraqis for the "next million years" should be grateful that Americans saved his country from a terrible dictator, he said.
"Whatever officials made the decision to topple Saddam Hussein, it was a gift from heaven. Divine intervention, " Kinani said.
He is grateful that the U.S. officials investigated Nisoor Square and sought indictments against the security firm. During the shootings, he said he was shocked because he believed the assailants were soldiers.
Ten days after his son's death, Kinani said three Army officers took his statement and he begged them to find out the truth.
"You guys have come to Iraq and sacrificed a lot of your people. My son has been added to the sacrifice. Don't disappoint us, " he told them.
The U.S. embassy gave him $10,000, which he said he would accept as long as they took half of it back to give to the family of a slain soldier.
Investigations, lawsuits sort out responsibility
A U.S. military investigation determined that Blackwater guards used excessive force and fired without provocation.
In December, federal District Judge Ricardo Urbina threw out the criminal charges, ruling that overzealous prosecutors improperly used statements from guards who had been promised immunity.
In a recent ruling stemming from that case, Urbina unsealed court papers with statements from three Blackwater guards who were present at Nisoor Square and said they believed the shootings were unjustified.
An Xe spokesman on Friday said the company could not comment on pending litigation.
Charlotte attorneys Mauney and Paul Dickinson Jr. said they could not divulge how they became involved in the case for "legal, ethical reasons." They would not say who was paying for their services.
The suit against Blackwater argues that the company's management "cultivated and condoned a culture of reckless and unlawful conduct."
Mauney said his firm has asked Iraqi government officials to help them collect evidence. Mauney doesn't rule out a settlement, but he said his goal is for a North Carolina jury to hear the case.
Said Kinani: "I just want the world to know what happened."