Blackwater and other security firms in trouble in Iraq

Blackwater provides security to US diplomats
and “assets” in Iraq [AFP]
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Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, announced the decision “to review the operations of foreign and local security companies in Iraq”.

 

He said: “This came after the flagrant assault conducted by members of the American security company Blackwater against Iraqi citizens.”

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The Blackwater controversy provided the backdrop to more violence across the country

 

Four car bombs in Baghdad on Tuesday killed 17 people and wounded 50 more, according to police.

 

The deadliest car bomb attack killed eight people and wounded 22 near a market in the Ur neighbourhood, not far from the Shia-dominated district of Sadr City, police said.

 

Three other car bombs killed a total of nine people and wounded 28.

 

Blackwater case

 

Commenting on the Iraqi government’s announcement that it will review the status of all private security companies, Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military analysis, told Al Jazeera: “Only the party that brought them [the private security firms] into Iraq can take them out of Iraq – and that is the US.”

 

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He said that under their contracts “neither Blackwater nor the other [private security] companies are obliged to obtain a licence from Iraq”.

 

Kahwaji said: “The chances are they are going to stay. Because a lot of the foreign companies and contractors that are rebuilding Iraq rely totally on these Western, or US-based, security companies.

 

“They don’t have any confidence in the Iraqi police and the Iraqi security services.”

 

Iraq’s interior ministry said 11 people were killed when Blackwater contractors opened fire at random after mortar rounds landed near a US convoy.

 

Regret over death

 

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, telephoned Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, on Monday to express regret over the death of innocent civilians, which the state department said occurred during the attack on the convoy.

 

Blackwater said its guards had reacted “lawfully and appropriately” to a hostile attack.

 

It also said on Monday that it had received no official notice from Iraq’s interior ministry.

 

US officials in Baghdad have yet to clarify the legal status of foreign security contractors in Iraq, including whether they could be liable for prosecution by Iraqi authorities.

 

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September 18, 2007 (NYT)

Iraq to Review All Security Contractors

BAGHDAD, Sept. 18 — The Iraqi government said today that it would review the status of all foreign and local security companies working in Iraq after a shooting that left eight Iraqis dead.

Blackwater USA, an American contractor that provides security to some of the top American officials in Iraq, was banned from working in the country by the Ministry of Interior after the shooting on Sunday, which involved an American diplomatic convoy.

A spokesman for the Iraqi government, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that the cabinet met today and supported the decision to cancel Blackwater’s license and begin an immediate investigation. The ministry has said that it would prosecute the participants in the shooting, but a law issued by the American occupation authority prior to the return of sovereignty to Iraq in 2004 grants American contractors, along with American military personnel, immunity from Iraqi prosecution.

Mr. Dabbagh said the investigation should “compel the company to respect the Iraqi laws, citizens’ dignity and the results and consequences the investigation would come up with.”The statement by the Iraqi government today seemed to blame Blackwater employees directly for the deaths, calling it a “vicious assault which was carried out by the employees of the American security company” against Iraqi citizens.

But American officials have stopped short of saying whether the Blackwater guards in the diplomatic motorcade had caused any of the deaths.

In a statement today, the anti-American Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, called for an investigation and said that the government should annul “this company’s and all other intelligence and criminal companies’ contracts.”

Details of the shooting Sunday are still unclear. 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.”

In separate violence today, a series of car bombs around Baghdad killed at least eight people. In the largest attack, a car bomb exploded close to the Health Ministry, near the central morgue, killing five civilians and injuring 20 others, the Ministry of Interior said. Another car bomb, which exploded in the Ur district near a popular market, killed one civilian.

The deaths on Sunday that were linked to Blackwater have struck a nerve with Iraqis, who say that private security companies are often quick to shoot and are rarely held responsible for their actions.

A security expert based in Baghdad said Monday night that the law granting contractors immunity, Order No. 17, 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 on Monday.

“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 diplomats, it is still not clear 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 has 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 a 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, an 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.”

Reporting was contributed by James Glanz, Ali Fahim, 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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