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EXCLUSIVE Source: SOFA sinks Blackwater contractors

Rc23vehicledamage The case against the Blackwater contractors indicted for manslaughter regarding the shooting at Nisour Square shooting last year has been politically charged from the beginning. There is no dispute that innocent Iraqi civilians were killed, but did the Blackwater guards believe they were under attack?

Most  major media outlets I read have some sort of statement from a US official saying that no evidence of anyone shooting at them exists. I met today with someone who says there certainly was evidence of a shooting. This individual's identity and duty assignment, that would have made him privy to this information, have been confirmed. He spoke to us because he believes these men are being prosecuted for political reasons rather than based on the facts. He also said that statements to media by government and military sources that there was no evidence of shots being fired at the contractors were false.

He walked me through the incident and I will do the same for you. He was not there, but was nearby and has had contact with all the entities involved: Blackwater, Iraqi Govt. DoD, State and FBI.

The convoy entered the square and stopped traffic. The white KIA approached and ignored signals to stop. It was engaged and as stated in his proffer Ridgeway began engaging the passenger. A nearby Iraqi IP responded to the passenger side and was likely trying to assist the passenger, but to the guards it appeared he was pushing the vehicle toward them as it was still moving forward. They oriented fire toward him and he returned fire at them. This led other IP in the area to join and support his fire.

In the course of this one of the Blackwater vehicles was so badly damaged that they had to tow it away. This caused them to remain in the area longer while engaged attempting to put tow chains on the vehicle. During this time the Blackwater personnel continued to fire at muzzle flashes they identified from multiple areas around the square. Once the vehicle was ready to go they exfiltrated the area.

To the guards this may have seemed like another ambush in what had been a week of sophisticated ambushes almost every day. Less than a week prior one of their helicopters had been shot down with an RPG and the DART team sent to extract it was ambushed by several dozen insurgents. A day later a convoy was hit by up to 50 insurgents causing a large gunfight as they sought to disengage. The same week one of their vehicles was hit by an EFP, fortunately it hit the engine block and didn't kill anyone. But the over force from the explosion actually ejected a turret gunner into the street and they had to recover him while again under fire.

There have been reports that a military team sent to investigate found no evidence of a two way gun fight. My source told me that this team went out days after the incident and there was a State Dept. team that went out the day after the incident and saw large quantities of AK brass throughout the square confirming that the team was engaged. There is a piece on by Brian Bennett and Adam Zagorin that seems to confirm several parts of this.

TIME has obtained an incident report prepared by the U.S. government describing the fire fight Sunday. According to the incident report, the skirmish occurred at 12:08 p.m. on Sunday when, "the motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations" as it moved through a neighborhood of west Baghdad. "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area. One vehicle engine was hit and disabled by bullets and had to be towed away. A separate convoy arriving to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel," the report says. Then an American helicopter hovered over the traffic circle, as the U.S. convoy departed without casualties. Some reports have said the helicopter also opened fire on Iraqis, but a Blackwater official told TIME that no shots were fired from the air. ....Crocker added, "The capability and courage of the individuals who provide security under contract is worthy of respect of all Americans." As an example of the dangers faced by private security personnel in the country, he cited a Blackwater helicopter that crashed in Iraq last Monday. "One of Blackwater's helicopters went down yesterday — a hostile fire incident," the Ambassador said. "Fortunately no one was killed in that accident, but over 30 of our contract security Americans have been killed keeping the rest of us safe." A Blackwater official confirmed Crocker's account of the incident.

I spoke with Brian and he said the source for the incident report was in the State Department, but that he was unaware of any official release from that agency confirming those same details.

It appears that this incident began out of an unfortunate circumstance, the white KIA proceeding too close and the Blackwater personnel perceiving it as another in a long week of ambushes. The rest of their actions, if predicated on the belief that they were in the midst of another complex ambush, were proper if unfortunate for the loss of innocent life. But the secondary tragedy is what seems like a politically motivated prosecution that is ignoring evidence that shows it to have been a two-way fight rather than a slaughter.

The Iraqi government had long been asking for these contractors to be turned over to them for prosecution. This and other incidents were major sticking points in the negotiations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

The shooting strained tensions between the Iraqi government and the United States over the use of security contractors in the country. Responding to widespread anger among Iraqis over the shooting, the country's political leaders have insisted that contractors be held more accountable under Iraqi law. They have been exempt under a 2003 decree by the U.S. occupation administration.

The Iraqi parliament recently approved a security pact that allows foreign security contractors to be tried under Iraqi law for crimes.

Now we have an instance where evidence appears to have been suppressed or misrepresented and the prosecutors who brought these indictments seem to have made a huge stretch to even charge them. The law they cite is extremely narrowly tailored to Department of Defense contractors, these men were State Department contractors working on a State Department contract protecting State Department employees. It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that these men were sacrificed to ensure the Iraqis would sign the SOFA Agreement. It also would follow that whoever made this decision (Gates? Rice?) is salving their conscience with the knowledge that they got the deal done and the charges will be tossed because the law doesn't apply. That would be an awful breach of power.