Blackwater case in Iraq puts U.S. officials in vise
By Ned Parker, Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Paul Richter in Washington, and Tina Susman, Saif Rashid, Wail Alhafith and special correspondent Usama Redh
September 18, 2007
BAGHDAD – American officials scrambled to head off a potential crisis Monday after irate Iraqi authorities canceled the license of the controversial American security company Blackwater USA, whose guards were accused of shooting to death eight civilians while guarding a U.S. State Department motorcade.
The swift response to Sunday’s deaths marked Iraq’s boldest step against foreign security contractors who have long been accused of racing through Baghdad’s streets and firing without restraint at anyone they see as a threat.
It also cast a focus on the continued lack of control by American officials over heavily armed private security contractors, at least 20,000 of whom supplement the U.S.-led military forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003.
The ouster of all Blackwater guards could cripple security arrangements for U.S. diplomats and other workers who rely on private guards for protection.
But several contractors predicted Monday that it was doubtful the Iraqi government would carry through on the threat to expel Blackwater.
“For all intents and purposes they belong to the [U.S.] Department of State,” one contractor said of Blackwater, whose employees have often been the victims of violence, including a gruesome 2004 incident in Fallujah when four guards were killed and mutilated.
While many details of Sunday’s incident remain in dispute, the gravity of the situation was apparent in the reaction of officials in Washington and Baghdad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday night to express regret over the shootings involving the North Carolina-based company, which provides most of the security for U.S. Embassy personnel traveling in Iraq. Al-Maliki on Sunday condemned the shooting as a “crime.”
‘A full investigation’
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman stressed that officials wanted to get to the bottom of the incident. “We take this very seriously and we are launching a full investigation in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said the Iraqi government should use the incident to look into overhauling private security guards’ immunity from Iraqi courts that was granted by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer in 2003 and later extended ahead of Iraq’s return to sovereignty.
“This is a golden opportunity for the government of Iraq to radically review the CPA Order 17 and make the review part of the investigation process,” al-Rubaie said.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, accused Blackwater of breaking the law.
“They committed a crime,” Khalaf said. “The judicial system will take action.” It was not immediately clear, however, how Blackwater employees could be prosecuted due to the immunity provisions enacted.
Private security companies expert Peter Singer said the case posed a sticky dilemma for the Americans.
“If [al-Maliki] is already describing this as a crime … we have a very interesting bridge to cross,” said Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. “Do we turn over American citizens to an Iraqi judicial system that is inept, corrupt and now politicized?”
The incident Sunday was the latest of many in which private security contractors employed by U.S.-led forces have shot and killed Iraqi civilians.
No U.S. security contractor has been prosecuted in the U.S. or Iraq. The latest incident is the first in which the Iraqi government has challenged the blanket immunity for foreign private security contractors, who number 20,000 to 30,000.
Khalaf said eight people were killed and 13 wounded when the security convoy sped by Nisoor Square at the edge of the Mansour district in western Baghdad. Two Iraqi witnesses said no one had attacked the convoy.
However, some local Iraqi television accounts reported an exchange of fire at the scene. The U.S. Embassy also said the convoy had come under fire.
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