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Michael Jansen: Arab lives matter too
August 14, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The decision of a US federal appeals court to throw out the first-degree murder conviction of and order a new trial for a former Blackwater security contractor who had fired the initial shots in the 2007 slaughter of 14 Iraqi civilians demonstrates, once again, that the US does not respect the right to life of Iraqi civilians.

Sniper Nicholas Slatten, 33, has been serving a life sentence for the infamous mass shooting at Nisour Square in Baghdad where an additional 20 were wounded, sparking international outrage. Prosecutors pointed out that Slatten hated Iraqis and had fired in revenge for al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 although Baghdad had no part in this operation and prevented al-Qaeda and other extremists from putting down roots in Iraq. If the Trump administration does not retry Slatten he could go free. The administration’s attitude towards this long forgotten massacre could very well be influenced by the fact that Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince is a prominent Republican and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Although Prince sold Blackwater in 2009, he has recently put forward a proposal to the Afghan government to develop a private airforce.

The court also called for lighter sentences for three other contractors involved in the shootings. They had been found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter. Each was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The four men claimed the convoy was ambushed, a claim that was not borne out. Witnesses who testified said there had been no shooting from the Iraqi side.

The men, travelling in a Blackwater convoy which was trying to clear a route for US officials, opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers on civilian vehicles caught in traffic in the square, killing unarmed men, women and children. One of the contractors falsely said they were acting in self-defence as their convoy was threatened by a suicide bomber in an approaching car. This was not true: the driver and his passenger had been shot and killed by one of the contractors and the car was rolling forward slowly out of control.

Prosecutors made the case against Slatten for opening fire on this car without provocation. However, an unnamed co-defendant, when offered immunity from prosecution, testified he had fired the first shots. This prompted the appeals court to review the case against Slatten although the testimony of the co-defendant had been previously rejected.

The UN argued contractors, meant to be “security guards,” were engaged in military operations and called the use of private firms, like Blackwater, a “new form of mercenary activity” which is illegal under international law. The US is, unfortunately, not a signatory of agreements banning the use of mercenaries.

The order to revise the Blackwater sentences echoes the prosecutions arising from a 2005 massacre at Haditha by US marines of 24 civilians, including women, children and a wheelchair-bound man, following the roadside bombing of a convoy. Cases against six Marines were voided and the seventh was acquitted in a court martial. The acquittal rate for military killings of civilians in combat zones is suspiciously low.

Before the Nisour Square incident, Blackwater operatives had been responsible for repeated unjustified shootings of civilians, seen by Iraqis as revenge for the March 2004 killing and maiming of four Blackwater gunmen by resistance fighters in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Its citizens had a deep grievance against the US military. In April 2003, shortly after the US occupation, several hundred civilians defied a curfew imposed by the US military and marched to a commandeered school, demanding that it be returned to teachers and their pupils. After failing to convince the crowd to disperse, soldiers fired upon the protesters, killing 17 and wounding 70. Human Rights Watch reported the troops had fired indiscriminately. After a series of resistance attacks on US troops and convoys, the US military launched an offensive against Fallujah but this was aborted by an international outcry.

The US response to the growth of insurgent activity around Fallujah and the Blackwater killings was to mount an all-out operation against the city in November-December 2004, obliterating homes, schools, government offices and commercial buildings. For many Iraqis this was a major provocation. The city was not just a centre of armed opposition to the US occupation but an icon of resistance as the city had played a key role in the Iraqi revolt against the British takeover in 1920.

US-overkill plus the brutal and discriminatory treatment meted out to Iraqi Sunnis by the US-installed Shia fundamentalist-dominated government contributed, ineluctably, to the takeover of Fallujah and other Sunni cities by Daesh which led to Baghdad’s brutal offensives against the cult this year and last.

Increasing US involvement in the ongoing campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria has caused a spike in civilian deaths, woundings and displacements in recent months. Experts accuse the Trump administration of weakening the rules of engagement. But this is not really the cause. This is the lack of US concern for civilians in battle zones where its troops are fighting.

Whenever US troops and contractors are hailed before courts for killing and maiming civilians, trials and retrials take many years and generally conclude with freedom for perpetrators unless US or world public opinion continues to protest about well-publicised cases.

Policemen involved in shootings in the US itself often escape prosecution although killings and woundings are frequent and can be a result of arrests for minor traffic offences. Since a large proportion of victims are African-Americans, protesters have formed a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” Countries in this region where US troops are operating should form a similar movement called “Arab Lives Matter” to follow up on every multiple killing of innocent civilians.

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