Skip to comments.Strong Words Mask Inaction [Fallujah, Blackwater]
Posted on 08/01/2004 7:41:12 AM PDT by elfman2
In the days after the four American security contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah, America's leaders promised justice and retribution.
"Their deaths will not go unpunished," said L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq.
The military response would be "overwhelming," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. "We will pacify that city."
President Bush's spokesman said the drive for Iraqi democracy would "not be deterred by these cowardly, hateful acts."
Months later, none of these promises has been fulfilled.
No one has been arrested in the deaths of Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko, who died March 31 in an ambush as they protected a convoy on its way to pick up kitchen equipment for ESS, a food supplier to the military.
Neither the U.S. military nor the U.S.-led occupation government investigated the incident. The company that employed the four, Blackwater USA of Moyock, N.C., conducted its own investigation but has said little beyond a sketchy statement in April.
The families of Batalona, Helvenston, Teague and Zovko don't know why the men drove through the heart of a city that boiled with hostility toward the American occupiers. They don't know where their loved ones were going, why they drove vehicles without armor or why they didn't have more help in a place where the military ventured only in heavily armed convoys.
It's not clear whether they'll ever get answers.
Family members have asked Blackwater for more information, for copies of the company's investigation and for ways to contact the three truck drivers in the convoy who survived the attack. Blackwater has told the families little.
Congress has done nothing to regulate the role contractors play on the battlefield. And it's increasingly unlikely that anyone will bring the Fallujah attackers to justice, despite the repeated promises of U.S. officials.
On May 23, the Marines gave Fallujah police and other Iraqi security forces a list of 25 suspects gleaned from military intelligence and asked that they be arrested. Fallujah is now patrolled by the "Fallujah Brigade," made up in part of loyalists to Saddam Hussein and insurgents who fought the U.S. troops.
No arrests have been made, and now the Iraqis are in charge of the country again. Lt. Col. Thomas V. Johnson, a Marine spokesman, said in a recent e-mail message that there had been "little progress" in finding the killers.
The unresolved questions are only part of the legacy of the attack. The ambush wiped out the Marines' strategy to subdue and win over Fallujah.
Marines did not know the contractors were going into Fallujah. They learned of the attack from a Fox News broadcast.
Marines had devised a tough-love approach to the Sunni Triangle. They had planned neighborhood patrols, living in town in small groups, building relationships with the locals and handing over $540 million for projects to begin repairing the damage from a year of war.
After the ambush, Cpl. Brandon Berhow-Goll and his platoon from Camp Pendleton in California wouldn't use their rudimentary Arabic or newly acquired insights into Iraqi culture: how to address town elders or how to use their right hands to shake hands or give gifts.
Instead of knocking on doors in Fallujah, as the Marines had planned, they'd be knocking them down.
"It ruined things," Berhow-Goll said. "Everything became more abrasive."
The Marines were ordered into Fallujah to find the killers. They encircled the city and started pounding it with gunships and mortars. House-to-house fighting killed 600 Iraqis and 10 Marines. Berhow-Goll ran into an ambush of his own near Fallujah, catching shrapnel in his shoulder, thigh and foot; four of his mates were killed, including his best friend.
The outcry over Iraqi casualties led the Pentagon to order a stop to the fighting. The Marines thought they were days from finishing the job, but they lowered their guns and pulled back to bases outside the city.
This was a legacy of the Blackwater ambush: The Marines first were forced into a bloody fight they didn't want and then ordered to call a cease-fire they didn't condone. Hundreds of people died, and the city, already the most dangerous in Iraq, became an even bigger problem for the U.S. military and, later, for the new Iraqi government.
Fallujah has become an incubator for terrorists and insurgents, who have turned it into a base for staging attacks elsewhere in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist, is thought to be based there.
In early July, someone sent a copy of a videotape to Michael Ware, a Time magazine reporter who had spent time with insurgents in Fallujah.
The Islamic terrorists had turned the ambush into a recruiting tool -- a slick propaganda film featuring a soundtrack, a narrator and Arabic titles that fade out by flying off the screen like birds.
The tape opens with a hooded man giving details of the attack, and then there are the scenes filmed seconds after the shooting. Then, snippets from other attacks are shown, including a night ambush apparently against U.S. troops, the aftermath of an attack on a convoy transporting armored vehicles by truck, and a roadside bomb erupting as a U.S. military Humvee passes.
As the Blackwater segment fades to black, voices chant:
"Kick him out
"Make him flee
"Make life tight on him
"These are the brothers of the pig and the monkey
In the days after the Fallujah killings, the scenes of the mob abusing the contractors' bodies drew worldwide outrage. For many, it was an introduction to the growing role of private military contractors.
Further revelations that civilian contractors were involved in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and that contractors pocketed millions by overcharging for meals and fuel prompted Congress to order a study of new regulations to control the private security industry. Some called for the military to rethink its reliance on contractors.
There has been much talk among U.S. lawmakers of tighter regulation -- and perhaps using fewer contractors in war zones.
Critics in Congress and elsewhere said it was unclear to whom the contractors answered. They said that their work should be coordinated with the military and that they needed better information about the threats to their safety, perhaps military intelligence.
So far, things haven't changed much for the contractors. Amendments proposing new regulations reached the Senate floor June 16. They would have held contractors more accountable for billing fraud and banned the government from letting them interrogate prisoners.
The members voted them down.
As the issue advanced to the forefront in Congress, Blackwater took action. The day after the attack, Blackwater owner Erik Prince hired the Alexander Strategy Group, an influential Beltway firm with strong Republican ties.
During the following week, Prince had two private meetings with the Republicans who run Capitol Hill.
First he met with Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader; Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Bill Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Later, Prince met with Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Appropriations Committee chairman; Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Sen. George Allen of Virginia; and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Neither Prince nor the politicians would discuss the meetings. Blackwater spokesman Chris Bertelli, who attended, described the meetings as "serious but collegial, not uncomfortable."
Warner later called security contractors "our silent partner" in Iraq.
While there has been little appetite in Congress to regulate contractors, the Pentagon has been drafting rules for the way the military works with contractors in war zones. The proposed rules follow a 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office of contractors in the Balkans. The GAO found that different branches of the military gave contractors different rules, leading to confusion.
The rules, among other things, would give combat commanders more authority over private security firms, especially in emergencies, a change Blackwater supports.
Things have changed in Iraq, Bertelli said. On June 28, private contractors started meeting weekly with the military and the civilian government to share intelligence about areas the contractors should avoid.
It's still not clear who set up the March 31 ambush. While Blackwater says U.S.-trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members led the convoy into a trap, there has been no official investigation.
Jim Steele, then the Coalition Provisional Authority's counselor for Iraqi security forces, visited the site four days later with Fallujah police to make sure all the bodies had been recovered. He said that it was disappointing that the police hadn't responded to the attack but that he neither saw nor heard anything to suggest they or Iraqi troops were involved.
Some contractors who have worked with Blackwater in Iraq were skeptical that the team had arranged for an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps escort. The Iraqi security force simply wasn't trusted, said the contractors, who asked not to be named to protect their jobs.
The contractors also said security teams on the ESS contract had insufficient firepower. And the team ambushed in Fallujah should have been the standard Blackwater team of three men in each car, not two, the contractors said.
Days after the ambush, Helvenston's family got a copy of an April 13 e-mail message by someone who identified herself as Kathy Potter, an Alaska woman who had helped run Blackwater's Kuwait City office while Helvenston was there.
Most of the lengthy message consisted of condolences. Potter, however, also said Helvenston's normal team, operating in relatively safe southern Iraq, had six members -- not four like the group that entered Fallujah.
Potter also wrote that Helvenston helped acquire "the backup vehicles and critical supplies for these vehicles ... when the original plan for armored vehicles fell through."
Company officials declined to say why there were no armored vehicles for the ESS contract. After the four contractors died, the company began using some armored vehicles.
Final trip home
Batalona, Helvenston, Teague and Zovko all are home now, after one last trip through the new gray zone between civilian and military. They were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where military casualties arrive in the United States. They were examined by a military coroner.
Batalona is buried in the lush landscape that he had to leave to make more money. He lies in Honoka'a, in a county cemetery on a steep slope down to the rocky coastline. The Pacific shimmers in the morning sun, and tropical foliage is allowed to grow on the graves. Here, the dust and violence of Iraq seem almost impossible.
In Tennessee, Teague's motorcycle club rumbled up to his funeral. His wife, Rhonda, asked the thronging reporters to accept a simple statement: "I, his son, Brandon, and his friends and family will miss him without measure." She has declined to talk with reporters since.
Two weeks after the Air Force flew Helvenston back from Iraq in an aluminum box, his friend Ed Twyford heard that the president's wife, Laura Bush, and brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, were coming to Winter Haven, Fla., for a ceremony to recognize troops and their families. He thought a mention during the festivities would be a nice honor for Helvenston, a Navy SEALs veteran who had attended Winter Haven High School.
An organizer of Operation Troop Salute said no, in part because Helvenston had been working as a private military contractor when he was killed.
"These guys lost their lives providing security for U.S. troops," Twyford said. "If they hadn't been doing it, enlisted men would have had to do it. It's just that in this war, they decided they were going to have contractors."
On May 30, Helvenston's relatives and friends gathered on one of his favorite beaches, and a handful launched kayaks through heavy surf to spread his ashes over the Pacific. When they tried to come back in, they got a hefty dose of the adrenaline that Helvenston had lived for: Three were flipped by big waves.
"Scott would have loved that," said his ex-wife, Patricia Irby.
Then Helvenston's family and friends organized a race over an obstacle course along the beach. His son, Kyle, won. He's 14.
In downtown Cleveland, the Croatian community that nurtured Jerry Zovko packed St. John Cathedral to mourn him. They persuaded Archbishop Anthony Pilla to lift the Catholic ban on funerals on Holy Saturday. Afterward, hundreds packed the American Croatian Lodge Kardinal Stepinec on Lakeshore Boulevard to remember him with tears and plum brandy.
Weeks after the funeral, sitting at her kitchen table before a lit candle, a picture of her son and a statue of the Virgin Mary, Danica Zovko was racked by questions about her son's killing.
Will anyone be arrested? Did they take a wrong turn? Why did the Blackwater consultants go into Fallujah so lightly armed, in unarmored vehicles? Were they ordered there or lured there?
Erik Prince had flown to Cleveland to meet the family. He gave Danica condolences, kind words and a blank form to claim $3,000 in funeral benefits.
"Pennies and dollars? Who cares?" she said. "We make money, money does not make us."
She wanted to choke Prince, to throw him out of her house, but she didn't have the strength. Distressed by the memory of her anger, she picked up the Virgin Mary and kissed the statue, seeking forgiveness.
Months later, little has changed for Danica Zovko. She and her husband have gone to Croatia, to visit relatives and to drink the water in the family's village that helped her son grow so tall. Later this month, she will have an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome. She hopes it will help.
"I am more confused than ever," she said just before leaving. "There are a billion and one questions, and there is no one to answer them."
Sorry, OP. This will be taken care of after the re-election of Bush. The US military is trying to minimize casualties to blunt the AP drumbeat being used to bludgeon GWB. Afterward, they will have a much freer hand to clean out the cockroaches.
Not a lot new here, but I wasnt aware that there was a suspect list for the Fallujahn contractor mutilation. Also some information on the contractors convoy that was attacked.
ap drumbeat? what are you talking about? the american press agency keeping a tally of u.s. troops killed in iraq? that would seem to be their job and duty.
Its a trade off. On the other end, insurgents may get stronger over the next 100 days. And 100 days closer to the Iraqi election, we may not want to act against Alawi who AFAIK has no sympathy to major military operations that kill hundreds.
I think that their job is to create a product worth purchasing, and their duty is to report accurately. Thats more than just highlighting the tragedies.
I'm curious as to your purpose in posting this? This article is patently false, our response to Fallujah has been appropriate and has made our troops safer. Why on earth would you post an article who's sole purpose seems to be nothing more than Bush bashing?
How about we try to focus on the results, 25 million free Iraqis and a safer United States, rather than on a few exaggerated claims of a problem or two in the country.
Perhaps you should run for President if you aren't happy with the job Bush is doing, in the meantime, you should support your commander in chief and not try to be a Michael Moore wannabe.
which headline would cause you to stop and purchase a newspaper?: "u.s. soldier digs a well in iraq" or "al-qaida linked terrorist beheads americans in iraq; baghdad car bomb kills 52." one sells papers, one doesn't. american culture prizes titillation over substance, so we get what we deserve.
Click on the "AP breaking" service. AP is the main circulator of the casualty lists. And they do it in a sleazy way. They, more than anyone else, trumpets a list that includes accidents and the like. And they were the main perpetrator of the nationwide Memorial Day newspaper publication of the pictures of everyone that died -- but ONLY in Iraq and not Afghanistan. It was a disgusting political statement, used to stir an emotional response.
"main circulator of the casualty lists"? huh? are you saying we should just ignore the deaths of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, colleagues and friends in iraq? should we have no word of them, those who fight and die in our name? you should print out their pictures and hang them in a place of honor, rather than wish you'd never heard of them. personally, i'm glad to have word from the battlefront. the least we can do for our servicemembers who blood soaks the iraqi sands is to hear of their sacrifice.
Maybe you just create a little black starting with me if name callings all youre capable of. Otherwise identify something patently false and prove it.
If AP showed those beheading as prominently, graphically and a often as they showed Abu Ghraib, I think sales and public support for the war would remain strong.
Make that black "list".
Kimmitt also made statements to the effect that we will not rush into this, we will attack at a time & place of our choosing. Unfortunately, by the time the green light was given to the Marine Corps, the outrage over the killing of the American contractors had subsided. The liberal media had time to ramp up there criticism of military action to come ... then when it occurred they focused on civilian casualties. The Marines should have attacked immediately upon learning of the murder and dismemberment of the Americans ... and basically leveled Fallujah.
Perhaps. From my understanding, the Marines vastly underestimated the Fallujahn insurgency and went in a little flat footed. By the time they were prepared to wipe it out with overwhelming combined arms force, political resistance inside Iraq (not here) force Bremer/Sanchez (and in one report Rumsfeld) to pull the cord on the attack.
"A little flat footed"? It is called the will to win, they (Fallujahn insurgency) have it, we (civilian leadership) don't.
Liberal straw man argument. The AP didn't publish the pictures to honor the fallen soldiers. They selectively featured those who died in Iraq but not Afghanistan to make a cheap political point. And you evidently agree with their lowdown tactics.
If the AP was interested in detailed accuracy, in every story in their drumbeat about American "deaths" in Iraq, they would break the list down into KIA, accidental deaths, death from illness, suicide, etc. Rather, they intentionally lump them together in order to inflate the casualty list to promote their anti-war agenda.
It's just not the casualty lists either. The AP is indistiguishable from Al Jazeera when it comes to publishing and sensationalizing the bad news only. There is a historic achievement being accomplished in Iraq and the AP -- and their readers -- are missing it first hand. 90% of the people there (or more) are moving toward democracy. They are openly fed up with the outside agitators. Both Sunni and Shiite clerics have condemned the kidnappings and beheadings. The Shiites have slapped down their own fringe bad actor al Sadr. On top of this, all sides are leaning toward a secular rather than religious government. But is the AP letting their American readers know about these historic developments, when much of their daily space is devoted to fixation over deaths that equal about 4 days worth of domestic traffic accidents? Where's the balance? Where's the context?
There was more to the apparent early leashing of Marines in the early weeks than just a lack of political will. Their misunderestimation was explained pretty well in #63 here and more in #137 here But I agree that after a couple of weeks of massive Iraqi casualties, politicians imposed overwhelming pressure leading to a poor military decision.
Joe and Jay join the legion of armchair generals...
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