BAGHDAD Employees of U.S. security firm Blackwater who shot and killed Iraqi civilians should face the death sentence, relatives of some victims said on Sunday.
U.S. law enforcement sources said on Friday that U.S. officials expected to announce charges soon against the security guards over the shooting that killed 17 civilians in 2007 and strained U.S.-Iraqi ties.
"A death sentence is the least thing ... In addition the director of Blackwater should be taken to trial. He gave them the weapons, this authority to block roads and kill civilians," said Mohammed al-Kinani, whose son was killed that day.
The news of the case stirred painful memories for Kinani, who was in his car with several family members when it came under fire from Blackwater guards on September 16 last year.
North Carolina-based Blackwater, the largest security contractor in Iraq, has said its guards acted lawfully, and in self-defense after their motorcade came under fire. No further comment was immediately available over the weekend.
Blackwater is employed in Iraq by the U.S. State Department, and its employees were protecting a diplomatic convoy on the day of the incident.
Blackwater vehicles had closed the road ahead and traffic had come to a stop, Kinani said. He had heard three or four gun shots. The situation was calm, he said. Then one Iraqi vehicle edged forward as its driver spoke to a policeman.
"When they saw that, they opened fire, with full force, they completely destroyed the car," Kinani said.
Gunfire rained down on the area in front of the Blackwater vehicles, Kinani said, hitting vehicles, the pavement, the traffic light and electricity poles. Car tires exploded and windows shattered as his family cowered in the car.
Kinani said he saw a young man in the car in front of him try to leave his vehicle.
"They riddled his body with bullets. He lay on the side of the road and there was blood all around him. And every minute they'd return and fire at his body," Kinani said.
He tried to dial for help, but a bullet ricocheted off the rear view mirror and smashed the phone from his hand before hitting him in the face, Kinani said.
After about eight to 12 minutes the shooting stopped, said Kinani, who got out of the car. His young nephew, who was in the vehicle, told him his nine year-old son Ali had been killed. Ali was slumped against the passenger door, its window shattered.
"When I opened the door he tumbled out. His brain fell between my feet," Kinani said, breaking down in tears.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
The expected charges against the Blackwater security guards come after more than a year of FBI investigations in one of the most high-profile legal cases remaining before President George W. Bush leaves office next month.
The shooting enraged the Iraqi government. Many Iraqis were also upset in April when the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract to protect U.S. personnel in Baghdad.
"They killed innocent people and there's no excuse. The most severe penalty U.S. law allows would be just," said Haythem al-Rubaie, whose wife and son were killed in the incident.
Security firms working for the United States after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Iraq, but that ends on December 31 under a security pact between Baghdad and Washington signed last month.
Both Rubaie and Kinani went to Blackwater's offices in Baghdad looking for an apology and an explanation.
"They said this is $20,000, a gift, not compensation, from the company. I told them, 'You kill my son and give me $20,000?' I don't want your $20,000. You until now have not admitted there was a crime, or apologized," Kinani said.
He said he offered to relinquish all legal and monetary claims on Blackwater if they apologized, but the firm declined.
Rubaie said he left a meeting with Blackwater with no answers. "I asked Blackwater why they killed my son. They said they didn't know. I asked them why they killed my wife, who was screaming for help after my son was killed ... He said: 'I don't know'," Rubaie said.
"I told him that if every time I ask you something you tell me 'I don't know' then there's no point in us meeting."
(Editing by Michael Christie and Elizabeth Piper)