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Baghdad, August 6, 2009|
Guards employed by Blackwater, the US security company, shot Iraqis and killed victims in allegedly unprovoked and random attacks, it was claimed yesterday.
A Virginia court also received sworn statements from former Blackwater employees yesterday alleging that Erik Prince, the company�s founder, "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe".
They also accused the company of following a policy of deliberate killings and arms dealing and of employing people unfit or improperly trained to handle lethal weaponry.
In Baghdad yesterday, some Iraqis said they believed that the case was a last chance for justice and an opportunity for America to divorce the behaviour of its military from the private guards.
Farid Walid, who was shot in Nisour Square two years ago during a massacre that killed 17 Iraqis, said: "Everybody here knows of cases where Blackwater guards shot innocent people without a second thought. They are a symbol of the occupation. Nobody will forget. But Iraqis might think at least a little differently of America if the killers are put in prison."
Mr Walid is among several Iraqis behind an attempt to take Blackwater to court in the US, helped by an American lawyer, Susan Burke, and her local legal team.
Umm Sajjad, whose husband was allegedly shot by Blackwater guards, said: "The US forces have come to our neighbourhood many times and they never harmed anybody. It was Blackwater that wanted to harm people."
Her husband was working as a security guard at the Iraqi Media Network, a state broadcaster, when a Blackwater convoy passed them one day in 2007. She says that without warning, the Iraqis were fired upon and three of them were killed. The Blackwater convoy never stopped or sent anyone to check what happened.
Umm Sajjad said: "I was told that there was no exchange of fire or any other reason to provoke them to shoot at my husband and his colleagues. They were on a high building but they didn�t have weapons in their hands."
Other families have tales of shootings allegedly committed by Blackwater, which has since changed its name.
Abu Suhad lost his daughter in 2007 when she was driving her car near the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in central Baghdad. He said: "Eyewitnesses told me that four white Blackwater cars went by her. Three were already past when the last one shot her in the head at close range and killed her. The eyewitnesses said they were very bewildered why they shot her. The bullet came from the driver�s window, which means that he got next to her when he shot her. The bullet entered from under the ear and left from the upper side of her skull. There were bits of her hair and skin on the car roof."
Mr Walid remembers the Nisour Square shooting on September 16, 2007 � for Iraqis one of the blacker days of the US occupation. Claiming to have come under fire, Blackwater guards stopped in the middle of a large roundabout and began shooting in all directions.
"I left my car and ran away to hide in a petrol station, which was made of concrete. The shooting was so heavy it was like rain," he said. "I saw lots of people getting shot. The driver who had been in front of me died and his wife fell out of the car. Her child was killed as well. The shooting went on for about ten minutes."
Iraqis still find it hard to believe that companies such as Blackwater were given such free rein. Until the start of this year its employees were immune from prosecution in the country.
In another alleged incident involving the company, Ali Husamaldeen was walking in Wathba Square, central Baghdad, on September 9, 2007, when he was felled by a single gunshot. Passers-by reported a Blackwater helicopter overhead, from which they say the fatal shot was fired. According to his mother, Umm Ali, her son was unarmed and in no way a threat.
Leqaa al-Yaseen, an MP, said: "I believe the US authorities have the main responsibility for what happened because Blackwater came to Iraq with their permission. Regarding Blackwater smuggling weapons into Iraq, that suggests the US forces didn�t know about it at the time. But I think they did know.
"The tragedies that happened to our Iraqi people at Nisour Square and other places are not separate from the US forces in Iraq. The US Government is trying to avoid responsibility by blaming private companies."
Officials in Baghdad have told The Times that they are continuing to investigate allegations similar to those made in the US against Blackwater.
Major-General Fathel al-Barwari, commander of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, said he was gathering evidence of illegal weapons trading by the company. As a result, Blackwater could also face criminal prosecution in Iraq, where it is now banned, but other companies connected to Mr Prince still operate.
Tahseen Al-Shekhli, for the defence ministry in Baghdad, said: "If the allegations of illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq are proven, the Iraqi authorities will definitely take legal measures against this company."
The Iraqi Government has tightened up rules for private security companies in recent years.