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IRAQ: Iraqi Report Says Blackwater Guards Fired First

by Sabrina Tavernise and James GlanzNew York Times
September 19th, 2007

A preliminary Iraqi report on a shooting involving an American diplomatic motorcade said Tuesday that Blackwater security guards were not ambushed, as the company reported, but instead fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman's call to stop, killing a couple and their infant.

The report, by the Ministry of Interior, was presented to the Iraqi cabinet and, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account offered by Blackwater USA that the guards were responding to gunfire by militants. The report said Blackwater helicopters had also fired. The Ministry of Defense said 20 Iraqis had been killed, a far higher number than had been reported before.

In a sign of the seriousness of the standoff, the American Embassy here suspended diplomatic missions outside the Green Zone and throughout Iraq on Tuesday.

"There was not shooting against the convoy," said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government's spokesman. "There was no fire from anyone in the square."

A State Department spokesman, Edgar Vasquez, said he had not heard of the report and repeated that the department was conducting an investigation supported by the American military. A spokeswoman for Blackwater did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

"Let these folks do the investigation and get all the facts," Mr. Vasquez said, "and if department procedures were not followed, after the facts have been gathered we would decide what action to take."

The shooting, which took place on Sunday, has angered Iraqi officials and touched off a harsh debate about private security companies, which operate outside Iraqi law, a privilege extended to them by Americans officials while Iraq's government was still under American administration. Blackwater, which guards all top American officials here, had its work suspended, and Iraqi officials agreed to rewrite the rules to make the companies accountable.

"We do understand that the security companies are subject to high levels of threat and they do a good job at protection, but this does not entitle them to immunity from Iraqi laws," Mr. Dabbagh said. "This is what the Iraqi government would like to review."

He said the Iraqi and American governments had set up a joint committee to investigate the deaths.

American Embassy officials had said Monday that the Blackwater guards had been responding to a car bomb, but Mr. Dabbagh said the bomb was so far away that it could not possibly have been a reason for the convoy to begin shooting.

Instead, he said, the convoy had initiated the shooting when a car did not heed a police officer and moved into an intersection.

"The traffic policeman was trying to open the road for them," he said. "It was a crowded square. But one small car did not stop. It was moving very slowly. They shot against the couple and their child. They started shooting randomly."

In video shot shortly after the episode, the child appeared to have burned to the mother's body after the car caught fire, according to an official who saw it.

In interviews on Tuesday, six Iraqis who had been in the area at the time of the shooting, including a man who was wounded and an Iraqi Army soldier who helped rescue people, offered roughly similar versions.

The Iraqi soldier, who said he was standing at a checkpoint on the edge of the square, said he thought the convoy believed the small car was a suicide bomber and opened fire. According to the wounded man, recuperating in Yarmouk Hospital, the car with the family was driving on the wrong side of the road.

The convoy began throwing nonlethal sound bombs, several witnesses said, to keep people in the area away. That drew fire from Iraqi Army soldiers manning watchtowers that are part of an Iraqi Army base on the square. Iraqi police officers, witnesses said, also appeared to be shooting.
The Iraqi soldier, who did not give his name but said he was from a company of Iraqi commandos, said he saw another soldier trying to motion to the convoy to move on, but he was shot as well.

Sean McCormack, the spokesman for the State Department, said in a briefing that contractors "are subject to Department of State rules of engagement."

"These are defensive in nature," he said. When contractors and employees are attacked, he added, they "will respond with graduated use of force, proportionate to the kind of fire and attack that they're coming under."

The Iraqis' accounts have not been verified, but the anger in their telling served to reinforce the feeling among Iraqis here that private security companies care little for Iraqi lives. In a war where perceptions are paramount, the effect is poisonous.

"They are more powerful than the government," the Iraqi soldier said. "No one can try them. Where is the government in this?"

For Safaa Rabee, an engineer in Newcastle, England, whose 75-year-old father was shot dead while driving home from grocery shopping on Aug. 13 in Hilla in southern Iraq, the immunity was particularly galling. Mr. Rabee said his father had pulled over and waited as a convoy of sport utility vehicles zoomed past, lights and sirens flashing, a familiar routine for Iraqis, but when he pulled back out, guards in the last car of the convoy opened fire.

Mr. Rabee and his brother discussed it with the Hilla police chief, who said the convoy was an American diplomatic one from Najaf, another southern city, and also with a sympathetic American colonel, who offered small financial compensation.

The police chief said the security guards in the convoy were Blackwater, Mr. Rabee said, though he does not know for sure if that was the case.

"I said to him that I'll follow the killer anywhere in the world, even in American law," Mr. Rabee said by telephone from England. "He said: 'I understand you are angry but you can't do anything. They're under our protection.' I said, 'Do you think that's fair?' " For the family, Mr. Rabee said, the killing felt no different from that of Mr. Rabee's brother, the owner of a fish farm, who was executed by militants just south of Baghdad in 2005. The family pursued the case against his father's killers in court, but the case was closed.

In the clubby atmosphere of private security firms in Iraq, senior members of rival companies are often reluctant to criticize Blackwater.

But among the rank and file of security contractors, Blackwater guards are regularly ridiculed as cowboys who are relentlessly and pointlessly aggressive, carry excessive weaponry and do not appear to have top-of-the-line training.

Passing Blackwater convoys sometimes intimidates even Westerners, who fear coming under attack if they make a wrong move.

The Iraqi government said it had revoked Blackwater's license. But it appeared that the company had not possessed one in many months, according to a security official in Baghdad, but had begun work on getting one in spring of 2007.

The Iraqi government has changed hands several times, throwing up new hurdles for companies to register, and by the fall of 2006, when the process changed again, many simply stopped trying, the official said. Currently, about 25 companies are formally licensed, the official said. Blackwater is not among them.

One private security official said Blackwater had been at odds with the Ministry of Interior over licensing, and drew more ill will when a guard killed a ministry bodyguard some time ago.



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