BAGHDAD, Feb. 8 -- Private security workers under contract with the State Department shot and killed two Iraqi civilians Tuesday in the restive northern city of Kirkuk, police, U.S. officials and relatives of the dead said Wednesday.
Gunmen in a convoy of three dark-colored GMC sport-utility vehicles opened fire on a taxi north of downtown Kirkuk, killing two men, both ethnic Kurds, Capt. Honer Ahmed of the Kirkuk police said.
"Contract security personnel employed by the Department of State were involved in an aggressive vehicle incident on Feb. 7 in Rahimawa neighborhood of Kirkuk," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. "Two civilians died and one was injured. We've launched an investigation and it is ongoing."
The embassy would not name the security company.
Maj. Gen. Sherko Shakir, the Kirkuk police chief, said U.S. forces took the contractors into custody for interrogation.
In an e-mailed response to written questions, Maj. Jeffrey Allen, a spokesman for the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which is responsible for security in the city, wrote that U.S. soldiers "met with local police officials to reassure them that they will be standing by to support the State Department and contractor's investigations, and will continue to work with the Iraqi Police and other Iraqi Security Forces to improve the overall security situation in the region."
Iraqi government officials and U.S. commanders have condemned what they have termed indiscriminate and unpunished shootings of Iraqi civilians by some of the estimated 25,000 private security contractors operating throughout the country.
Late last year, video footage that appeared to show contractors opening fire on civilian vehicles surfaced on an Internet site that claims to be independently operated by former employees of a London-based security company, Aegis Specialist Risk Management, which has a $293 million contract with the U.S. government.
The video prompted investigations by the company and the military, the results of which have not been announced.
A U.S. military official said at the time that the identities of those responsible would be difficult to determine because no faces could be seen and voices were largely muffled.
But the same site that posted the initial videos -- http://www.aegisiraq.co.uk, -- has since posted what it says are unedited versions, complete with audible dialogue.
In one segment, shot through the rear window of a vehicle, men can be heard joking about wounds caused to an Iraqi driver.
As a car approaches, a voice says, "He's not stopping." Machine-gun fire erupts, peppering the oncoming car's hood and windshield. The car veers to the right and stops, and a man steps out, with his hand pressed to his head.
The dialogue continues:
"Well, I know the guy's okay," a man says, followed by hearty laughter.
"Man, that's comical. I've not seen that before," says another voice, amid more laughter.
"I think the glass cut him. . . . He's holding his ear."
In Kirkuk, a diverse and oil-rich city rife with tension among Iraq's main religious and ethnic factions, relatives of Khalid Mahmoud Nadir, an elderly taxi driver killed in Tuesday's shooting, vowed to avenge his death. They did not appear to distinguish between U.S. troops and the contractors, who many Iraqis say resemble foreign soldiers.
"We don't want any compensation from the Americans," said Nadir's brother, Nidham. "I swear to God that I will take revenge for my brother, even if I have to blow up myself for my brother whom they killed. He was a simple man who lived on the taxi income and was the breadwinner of his five-member family."
"They did not even stop to take him to the hospital," Nidham added. "This is their new democracy, and this is the freedom they brought."
"They hate the Muslims and feel that every Muslim is a terrorist," said Nadir's sister, Razqiya, 34. "We know very well that they do not respect the Iraqi people."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.
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