Every detail of September 16, 2007, is burned in Mohammed Kinani's memory. Shortly after 9 am he was preparing to leave his house for work at his family's auto parts business in Baghdad when he got a call from his sister, Jenan, who asked him to pick her and her children up across town and bring them back to his home for a visit. The Kinanis are a tightknit Shiite family, and Mohammed often served as a chauffeur through Baghdad's dangerous streets to make such family gatherings possible.
Mohammed had just pulled away from his family's home in the Khadamiya neighborhood in his SUV. His youngest son, 9-year-old Ali, came tearing down the road after him, asking his father if he could accompany him. Mohammed told him to run along and play with his brothers and sister. But Ali, an energetic and determined kid, insisted. Mohammed gave in, and off the father and son went.
As Mohammed and Ali drove through Baghdad that hot and sunny Sunday, they passed a newly rebuilt park downtown. Ali gazed at the park and then turned to his father and asked, "Daddy, when are you gonna bring us here?"
"Next week," Mohammed replied. "If God wills it, son."
Ali would never visit that park. Within a few hours, he would be dead from a gunshot wound to the head. While you may have never heard his name, you probably know something about how Ali Mohammed Hafedh Kinani died. He was the youngest person killed by Blackwater forces in the infamous Nisour Square massacre.
In May 2008 Mohammed flew to Washington to testify in front of a grand jury investigating the shooting. It was his first time out of Iraq. The US Attorney, Jeffrey Taylor, praised Mohammed for his "commendable courage." A year after the shooting, in December 2008, five Blackwater guards were indicted on manslaughter charges, while a sixth guard pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed Iraqi. American justice, it seemed to Mohammed, was working. "I'm a true believer in the justness and fairness of American law," Mohammed said.
But this past New Year's Eve, federal Judge Ricardo Urbina threw out all the criminal charges against the five Blackwater guards. At least seventeen Iraqis died that day, and prosecutors believed they could prove fourteen of the killings were unjustified. The manslaughter charges were dismissed not because of a lack of evidence but because of what Urbina called serious misconduct on the part of the prosecutors.
Then, a few days after the dismissal of the criminal case, Blackwater reached a civil settlement with many of the Nisour Square victims, reportedly paying about $100,000 per death.
Blackwater released a statement declaring it was "pleased" with the outcome, which enabled the company to move forward "free of the costs and distraction of ongoing litigation." But Mohammed Kinani would not move on. He refused to take the deal Blackwater offered. As a result, he may well be the one man standing between Blackwater and total impunity for the killings in Nisour Square.
On September 15, 2009, the night before the second anniversary of his son's death, Mohammed Kinani sued Blackwater in its home state of North Carolina, along with company owner Erik Prince and the six men Mohammed believes are responsible for his son's death. In an exclusive interview providing the most detailed eyewitness account of the massacre that has yet been published, Mohammed told his story to The Nation.
Mohammed Kinani, 38, is a gentle man, deeply religious and soft-spoken. When we meet, he takes off his hat as he greets me with a slight bow. He then presents me with a gift--a box of baklava--and insists that we try some right away. Before we sit down to discuss the events that led to the death of his son, Mohammed goes out of his way to assure me that no question is off limits and that he wants Americans to know what happened that day. It was as though he was telling me it was OK to ask him to relive the horror. "Those few minutes in Nisour Square, I will never forget; so whatever you ask me, I will answer with absolute clarity," he said.
Before we talk about Nisour Square, Mohammed tells me about his life. He was born in Baghdad in 1971 and grew up in a large home with his siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. His father, Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Sadeq Kinani, was a merchant who traded cars and auto parts. After high school, Mohammed enrolled at a technical institute in Baghdad but ultimately dropped out to take over the family business with his brothers. He avoided mandatory military service in Saddam's forces by paying his way out. He married a relative from his mother's side of the family and bought a home in Baghdad's al Adel neighborhood, and they had three sons and a daughter. Mohammed said his family despised Saddam, "a dictator who stole people's freedom."
Mohammed welcomed the arrival of US forces in Baghdad in April 2003. "On the first day the US Army entered Baghdad I was personally giving away free juice and candy in the street," Mohammed remembers. He and Ali would give out water and take photos with the troops when when Humvees passed by their house. "One of the soldiers even carried Ali on board one of the Humvees and took a photo with my son," Mohammed remembers. "My son loved the American Army."
In November 2006, as sectarian violence spread across Baghdad, Mohammed and his family were driven from their home by a prominent Sunni militia leader, and they moved into Mohammed's parents' home. Mohammed was devastated, but he also saw it as part of the price of freedom. "We cannot question God's plans," he says.
Before September 16, 2007, Mohammed had never heard of Blackwater. When he would stop at a US checkpoint, he would smile at the soldiers and thank them for being there. Ali enjoyed sticking his head out the window at checkpoints and telling Iraqi police, "I'm in the Special Forces." The police would laugh, Mohammed recalls, and wave him through, saying, "You're one of us." So when Mohammed found himself in a traffic jam that he thought was the result of a US military checkpoint at Nisour Square, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him.
To pick up his sister, Mohammed would have to pass Nisour Square twice. The first time he passed, he noticed it was extremely congested. There was a construction project nearby and Iraqi police lingering on the roadside directing traffic. Eventually, he and Ali picked up Jenan and her three children and began the return journey.
A few blocks from the square, they encountered two Iraqi checkpoints and were waved through. As they approached the square, they saw one armored vehicle and then another, with men brandishing machine guns atop each one, Mohammed recalls. The armored cars swiftly blocked off traffic. One of the gunners held both fists in the air, which Mohammed took as a gesture to stop. "Myself and all the cars before and behind me stopped," Mohammed says. "We followed their orders. I thought they were some sort of unit belonging to the American military, or maybe just a military police unit. Any authority giving you an order to stop, you follow the order." It turns out the men in the armored cars were neither US military nor MPs. They were members of a Blackwater team code-named Raven 23.
As the family waited in traffic, two more Blackwater vehicles became visible. Mohammed noticed a family in a car next to his--a man, woman and child. The man was staring at Mohammed's car, and Mohammed thought the man was eyeing Jenan. "I thought he was checking my sister out," Mohammed remembers. "So I yelled at him and said, 'What are you looking at?'" Mohammed noticed that the man looked frightened. "I think they shot the driver in the car in front of you," the man told him.
Mohammed scanned the area and noticed that the back windshield of the white Kia sedan in front of him was shattered. The man in the car next to Mohammed began to panic and tried to turn his car around. He ended up bumping into a taxi, and an argument ensued. The taxi driver exited his car and began yelling. Mohammed tried to break up the argument, telling the taxi driver that a man had been shot and that he should back up so the other car could exit. The taxi driver refused and got back into his vehicle.