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US: U.S. Contractor Banned by Iraq Over Shootings

by Sabrina TaverniseNew York Times
September 18th, 2007

Blackwater USA, an American contractor that provides security to some of the top American officials in Iraq, has been banned from working in the country by the Iraqi government after a shooting that left eight Iraqis dead and involved an American diplomatic convoy.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, said Monday that authorities had canceled the company’s license and that the government would prosecute the participants. But under the rules that govern private security contractors here, the Iraqis do not have the legal authority to do so.

The shooting took place in Baghdad on Sunday, but the details were still unclear, and American officials stopped short of saying whether the Blackwater guards in the diplomatic motorcade had caused any of the deaths. Bombs were going off in the area at the time, and shots were fired at the convoy, American officials said.

“There was a firefight,” said Sean McCormack, the principal State Department spokesman. “We believe some innocent life was lost. Nobody wants to see that. But I can’t tell you who was responsible for that.”

The deaths struck a nerve with Iraqis, who say that private security firms are often quick to shoot and are rarely held responsible for their actions. A law issued by the American authority in Iraq before the United States handed over sovereignty to Iraqis, Order No. 17, gives the companies immunity from Iraqi law. A security expert based in Baghdad said Monday night that the order, issued in 2004, had never been overturned. Like others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains under official inquiry.

Senior officials, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, expressed outrage.

“This is a big crime that we can’t stay silent in front of,” said Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister, in remarks on Al Arabiya television. “Anyone who wants to have good relations with Iraq has to respect Iraqis. We apply the law and are committed to it.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Maliki on Monday afternoon to express her regret “over the death of innocent civilians that occurred during the attack on an embassy convoy,” said Tom Casey, another State Department spokesman.

Mr. Maliki’s office said Ms. Rice had pledged to “take immediate steps to show the United States’ willingness to prevent such actions.”

Because Blackwater guards are so central to the American operation here, having provided protection for numerous American ambassadors, it was not clear on Monday whether the United States would agree to end a relationship with a trusted protector so quickly. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker praised private security companies in a speech on Sept. 11, referring to Blackwater by name.

“This incident will be the true test of diplomacy between the State Department and the government of Iraq,” said one American official in Baghdad.

Blackwater defended its actions, saying it had come under attack from armed militants.

“The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire,” said Anne Tyrrell, a company spokeswoman, in an e-mail message. “Blackwater professionals heroically defended American lives in a war zone.”

The American official said he believed that the contract had been pulled, although Ms. Tyrrell said that there had been no official action by the Ministry of Interior “regarding plans to revoke licensing.” Mr. McCormack said the State Department had not been informed about any cancellation.

It was not clear what legal mechanism the Iraqi government was using to block the company. All security contractors must obtain licenses for their weapons. Companies must also register with the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Interior.

One of the most terrifying images of the war for Americans involved four of Blackwater’s contractors in Falluja who were killed in 2004, and their bodies hung from a bridge. Reports of the number of Blackwater employees in Iraq ranged from at least 1,000 to 1,500, but the numbers were impossible to confirm.

At the end of the cold war, Congress and the Pentagon were eager to take advantage of new, less threatening landscape and drastically scaled back the standing Army, leading to the outsourcing of many jobs formally done by people in uniform. The Bush administration expanded the outsourcing strategy after the invasion of Iraq, with companies like Blackwater and its two main competitors, Triple Canopy and DynCorp, supplying guards and training at many levels of the war. About 126,000 people working for contractors serve alongside American troops, including about 30,000 security contractors.

A Blackwater employee was responsible for the shooting death of a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s vice presidents, Adel Abdul Mahdi, on Christmas Eve last year, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal in May. The Blackwater guard had been drinking heavily in the Green Zone, according to the report, and tried to enter an area where Iraqi officials live. The employee was fired, but left Iraq without being prosecuted, the report said.

In the shooting on Sunday, initial reports from the American Embassy said a convoy of State Department vehicles came under fire in Nisour Square, a commercial area in western Baghdad that is clogged with construction, traffic and concrete blocks. One vehicle became “disabled” in the shooting, officials said. The officials did not say whether any of the convoy’s security guards had fired back.

But two bombs exploded around the time of the convoy’s passage. Iraqis who were there said Monday that guards in the American motorcade, which had apparently been stuck in traffic, began shooting in response. That appeared to be confirmed by the embassy’s information officer, Johann Schmonsees.

“The car bomb was in proximity to the place where State Department personnel were meeting, and that was the reason why Blackwater responded to the incident,” he said on a conference call for reporters in Baghdad on Monday afternoon.

Mirenbe Nantongo, the embassy spokeswoman, said directly, “Our people were reacting to a car bombing.”

But typical for Iraq, confusion prevailed over who was firing at whom. Iraqis who had been at the scene said they saw helicopters, though American officials did not speak of air power. Ms. Tyrrell said helicopters came but did not shoot.

“There were several groups on the scene,” said a senior American administration official. “Bad guys. Us. Iraqi police. We don’t know if other parties were there, too. So we have to do forensics.”

A grocery shop owner, Abu Muhammad, reported seeing two helicopters firing down into the area, around the time of the bombing. “I was hearing the shooting continuing every now and then, for about 15 minutes,” he said, adding that the gunfire sounded low and fast, different from the sound of an AK-47 firing.

He said he saw a charred car with a man and a woman inside. A man whom he knew had been shot to death. Video images of the scene after the fighting subsided showed charred cars and bodies, though it was not clear what had caused the damage.

An official at Yarmouk Hospital, where the dead and wounded were taken, said 12 dead Iraqis had been taken in from three different incidents. Thirty-seven more Iraqis were wounded.

It was still unclear on Monday night whether the company had been ordered to leave. Mr. Schmonsees said earlier, “No one has been expelled from the country yet.”

Refugee System Criticized

In an internal cable dated Sept. 7, Mr. Crocker, the United States ambassador to Iraq, criticized the American government’s handling of Iraqi refugees for admission to the United States as too slow. He called on officials to smooth “bottlenecks” that make Iraqis wait months for their applications to be processed.

In the cable, which was first reported by The Washington Post, Mr. Crocker said the numbers of Department of Homeland Security officials conducting interviews in the region should be doubled. He said the United States should seriously consider alternatives, like having State Department officials process Iraqis inside Iraq, a step not allowed under the current rules.

Reporting was contributed by Mudhafer al-Husaini, Ahmad Fadam and Khalid al-Ansary from Baghdad, Thom Shanker from Washington, and Alain Delaquérière from New York.



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