Today’s Must Read

“It’s really surprising that Blackwater is still out there killing people.”

That’s a quote from the director of Iraq’s state-run television network, looking back in anger to an February shooting that prefigured the Nisour Square incident in September. In February, Blackwater guards on the roof of the Justice Ministry building in Baghdad’s Salihiya neighborhood shot and killed three security guards at the nearby Iraqiya TV compound. There was no recompense to the victims’ families. A cursory State Department investigation cleared Blackwater in full. And an Iraqi judge, citing CPA Order 17 –which gave U.S. contractors immunity from Iraqi prosecution — rejected a court petition filed by the network.

The details remain subject to debate. Blackwater claims it was under attack, and the State Department backs up the company. Iraqis at the TV station and the Interior Ministry say the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation. The story was first reported by Leila Fadel of McClatchy in September, and today Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post has an in-depth look at the incident.The February shooting underscores Blackwater’s reputation for opening fire first and asking questions later. Nabras Mohammed Hadi, an Iraqiya guard who had been threatened by insurgents for working for the state-run enterprise, was the first to die.

Hadi stood up in response to a commotion that suddenly broke out in the circle, according to several of his fellow guards. The time was between 11 a.m. and noon. “The problem started because some people wanted to park their car there,” said one guard, Adel Saadi. “Our guards didn’t allow them, because we were worried about car bombs. But they kept insisting.”

Hadi yelled at the civilians to move back, according to Ali, who was also nearby. “He was shouting: ‘Move away from here. You can’t stay here. This is a government building.’ While he was shouting, he was holding his gun in a ready position. That’s when the sniper shot him.”

It remains unclear what precipitated the shooting. The Blackwater guards said they came under fire from the building and responded, the diplomatic security official and the Blackwater spokeswoman said. Hadi’s colleagues said he never fired his weapon. Saadi said he heard one shot, looked up and saw Hadi falling.

Two others would die soon afterward in the resulting chaos — one shot in the neck, and the other in the side. Both bled to death. When an Iraqi Army captain with jurisdiction over the area, Ahmed Thamir Abood, arrived on the scene to talk to Blackwater, he got a particularly stark brush-off.

“I told them, ‘I want to speak with the guy who is in charge of this unit,’ ” he said.

The Blackwater guards started toying with him, Abood said.

“He’s in charge,” said one, pointing at one of his colleagues.

“No, he’s in charge,” said another.

“They didn’t care what I was saying,” Abood said.

If there’s forensic evidence supporting the Blackwater claim of coming under attack at the Justice Ministry, the story doesn’t make it clear. But here’s the State Department’s considered judgment of the shooting:

The diplomatic security official said the U.S. government offered no compensation because the investigation concluded that the Blackwater guards fired in self-defense. “It is the State Department policy to offer ex gratia condolence payments when innocent civilians have been hurt,” he said. “In this case, the investigation determined that the security detail had been fired upon, and therefore the issue of payments did not arise.”

Blackwater’s behavior at Nisour Square suddenly makes a lot more sense.