BAGHDAD — American officials scrambled to head off a potential crisis Monday after irate Iraqi authorities canceled the license of the controversial American security firm Blackwater USA, whose guards were accused of shooting to death eight civilians while protecting a U.S. State Department motorcade.
The swift response to Sunday's deaths marked Iraq's boldest step to assert itself 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Blackwater: A photo caption with an article in Wednesday's Section A about Blackwater USA security contractors in Iraq said that the daughter of Shakir Ismael, shown holding her picture, was among eight Iraqi civilians reportedly killed Sunday by Blackwater guards. The woman, Suhad Shakir, was killed in February, allegedly by foreign security contractors.
The ouster of all Blackwater guards here could severely cripple security arrangements for U.S. diplomats and other workers who rely on private guards to protect them on the violent streets of Iraq.
But several contractors predicted Monday that it was unlikely the Iraqi government would carry through with the threat to expel Blackwater.
"For all intents and purposes they belong to the [U.S.] Department of State," one contractor said of Blackwater employees, who have themselves often been the victims of violence, including the gruesome 2004 incident in Fallouja when four guards were killed and mutilated.
While many details of Sunday's incident remained in dispute, the gravity of the situation was apparent in the reaction of top-level officials in Washington and Baghdad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Monday night to express regret over the shootings involving the North Carolina-based company that provides most of the security for U.S. Embassy personnel traveling in Iraq.
An 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 advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said the Iraqi government should use the incident to look into overhauling private security guards' immunity from Iraqi courts, which was granted by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer III 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," Rubaie said.
Iraqi Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, accused Blackwater of breaking the law Sunday.
"They committed a crime," Khalaf said. "The judicial system will take action."
It was not immediately clear, however, how Blackwater employees could be prosecuted because of the immunity provisions enacted during the American-led occupation.
Private security companies expert Peter W. Singer said the case posed a sticky dilemma for the Americans.
"If [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?"
Failure to do so, he added, would undermine the legitimacy of a government the Bush administration is working feverishly to shore up.
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 American security contractor has been prosecuted in the United States or Iraq. The current incident is the first in which the Iraqi government has challenged the United States over the blanket immunity for foreign private security contractors, who number anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000.
Khalaf said eight people were killed and 13 wounded when the security convoy came speeding 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.
"A car bomb went off near a location where U.S. Embassy officials were in a meeting," Nantongo said. "Two U.S. Embassy support teams responded. One team made it to the scene quickly, and the other team came under fire."
Blackwater officials insisted that the convoy had been attacked by gunmen and did not fire wildly at bystanders.
"The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire," said spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. She said the company would cooperate with any investigation.
"Blackwater regrets any loss of life, but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life," she said.