For many in the United States and Iraq, the name “Blackwater” has become synonymous with a deadly 2007 episode that killed 17 innocent civilians and wounded 24. The massacre at Nisour Square in Baghdad was one of the most indelible events of the Iraq War, drawing widespread condemnation, including from human rights organizations and the Iraqi government.
Four men who worked for the American private security firm then known as Blackwater were found guilty in U.S. federal court of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to prison for the shootings. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump granted them full pardons, praising them for “a long history of service to the nation.” Trump said that the move was “broadly supported by the public,” and named a FOX News host and nine House Republicans as among the pardon’s proponents.
But the response to the pardons has been overwhelmingly negative. Analysts, experts and attorneys who have filed suit in the past against the Blackwater contractors said they feared these pardons would do lasting damage to the perception of U.S. integrity in the Middle East.
“President Trump has hit a disgraceful new low with the Blackwater pardons. These military contractors were convicted for their role in killing 17 Iraqi civilians and their actions caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal. President Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades his office with this action,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said in a statement.
The massacre on Sept. 17, 2007, sparked several investigations, including one by the FBI that concluded that at least 14 of the 17 shootings were unjustified and violated rules surrounding the use of deadly force by security contractors in Iraq, according to The New York Times. The contractors, who were hired by the U.S. government to provide security services, were found to have opened fire, unprovoked, on Iraqi civilians in the square as they were transporting American diplomats in a convoy.
The four contractors were convicted in federal court in October 2015. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a Trump ally whose sister Betsy DeVos currently serves as education secretary, ended up changing the firm’s name multiple times, first to Xe and then to Academi.
In addition to the federal criminal case, some families of the dead and survivors of the massacre filed civil suits in the U.S. North Carolina attorney Paul Dickinson represented six of the families in a lawsuit, which he was able to file because Blackwater contractors trained in that state. Among the plaintiffs were the family of 9-year-old Ali Kinani, the youngest of the Nisour Square massacre victims.
“My son was a little bit older than Ali when this happened,” Dickinson said. “These were just normal people who were in the traffic circle that day and were victims of indiscriminate shooting by men that had been hired by the United States and given immunity to any actions against them in Iraq.”
The Iraqi government canceled Blackwater’s operating license following the shooting.
Susan Burke, a lawyer based in Philadelphia, also represented some of the families in a civil case in federal court. Both Burke’s and Dickinson’s suits were settled out of court.
“Civil justice, receiving monetary compensation — it does not take away the permanent and lasting scars and pain when you’ve lost a loved one,” Burke said.
She called the pardons “a blow and yet another message to war criminals that they act with impunity. I think it’s the type of pardon that does permanent and long-lasting damage to America’s image abroad.”
U.S. Marine Corps veteran, military judge and West Point professor Gary Solis said the pardons are likely to have an effect on the average Iraqi and likely on citizens of other Middle Eastern nations who have had encounters with the U.S. military in the past.
“They know that their fellow citizens were murdered by Americans and the Americans got away with it. And that’s where I believe this will probably have the greatest effect, that the population of the Middle East is going to see that it simply cannot rely on America’s word and the fact that they’re convicted in a court,” Solis said.
“What this [pardon] does is illustrate the unreliability of the United States as an ally,” he added.
Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, also noted the current political realities inside Iraq, where the parliament in January held a vote on ousting U.S. troops who are there as part of the anti-Islamic State group coalition. The U.S. is in the process of drawing down its current troop presence from 5,200 to 3,000.
“There are those who want the troops out because they believe the Americans don’t observe any caution when it comes to Iraqi lives. In the past, you would say, ‘Yes, America does – they are not above the law.’ Now we see that people are above the law,” Kadhim said.
He added that it would make the argument harder for Iraqi leaders who are pushing for improved U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Kadhim also said he hoped news of the pardons would not lead to a spike in violence against Americans in Iraq, noting that the Blackwater case did not involve active duty troops, nor was it related to the current U.S. military mission, which is focused on countering ISIS, not the war in Iraq which the U.S. officially left in 2011.
U.S. military members “are people who are doing service on behalf of the rest of us. They are training Iraqis, they are serving the country. They have nothing to do with the massacre and its targets. They should be out of the equation, but you can never control what logic will prevail,” Kadhim said.