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U.S. restricts movement of its diplomats in Iraq

The limits come as a shooting by a convoy's guards is investigated.

September 19, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. Embassy on Tuesday banned diplomats and other civilian government employees indefinitely from traveling by land outside the heavily protected Green Zone as American and Iraqi officials debated the legal status of foreign security contractors after a weekend shooting incident here in which eight civilians were reported killed.

The Iraqi government announced Tuesday that its initial investigation had determined that Blackwater USA guards fired without provocation on Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle Sunday. The account contradicted statements by the North Carolina-based security company and the U.S. State Department that the guards had come under small-arms fire after a car bomb exploded.

Iraqi authorities said they would move to overhaul the nation's laws to end the immunity of foreign contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts, a measure established by U.S.-led occupation officials after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The confrontation could prove to be a test of the sovereign powers of the Iraqi government when it clashes with American officials over prickly subjects such as U.S. dependence on private security contractors, whom many Iraqis loathe after repeated reports of wild shooting, reckless driving and abusive behavior.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Tuesday that Blackwater guards should be held accountable for Sunday's killings, which took place while the security detail was assigned to protect a State Department motorcade.

"They should not have immunity for their mistakes," Dabbagh said. "If they have made a mistake, they should be subjected to the law."

With Iraqi public opinion inflamed by the deaths, including that of a young child, the U.S. Embassy issued a brief statement late Tuesday declaring the ground-travel ban for diplomatic employees in Baghdad beyond the Green Zone -- home to most American officials in the capital. In other parts of Iraq, such officials are restricted to areas guarded by the U.S. military.

Diplomatic employees frequently move around the country by helicopter. Nonetheless, several American diplomats described the travel freeze, even if short-lived, as a blow to the embassy's work in Iraq.

"People have to get out. There is no point of having a diplomatic mission in a country if you don't get out," one U.S. diplomat said.

The travel restriction came despite recent U.S. military statements that attacks in Iraq had declined as a result of the buildup of troops this year. Last week, President Bush in a nationwide address said the troop increase he ordered in January had already improved security enough that he could soon begin withdrawing some forces.

"This suspension is in effect in order to assess mission security and procedures, as well as to assess a possible increased threat to personnel traveling with security details outside the International Zone," as the Green Zone is also known, the statement said.

Embassy officials did not further explain the need for a travel restriction, nor did they directly address details of Sunday's incident or the future role of Blackwater, which has about 1,000 employees in Iraq.

"We are pursuing discussions with the Iraqi government at the highest levels," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said. "Part of the discussions is what structure and form the investigation will take."

U.S. officials said that they were talking with the Iraqi government about what rules should guide the operations of contractors, but that the talks were preliminary and it would be difficult to untangle the issues.

U.S. officials said the embassy in Baghdad had ordered the travel halt after consultation with Washington. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was not present for those talks. He was in London on Tuesday with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief U.S. commander in Iraq, discussing war strategy with British officials.

Officials said they took the step out of "an abundance of caution," as one put it, to avoid any further complication at a time of heightened tensions. "It's an emotional issue, on all sides," one official said.

Iraqi spokesman Dabbagh said a preliminary report showed Blackwater guards "used superior firepower unnecessarily." The convoy fired recklessly when a couple's car failed to come to a complete stop at the Nisoor roundabout in western Baghdad's Mansour district, he said.

"The car was slowing down but not stopping. They suspected them and shot and killed the couple and their small child," Dabbagh said.

Support helicopters joined the convoy in raking fire on the traffic circle, he said. At least five other people died in the shooting, Iraqi authorities said.

Dabbagh said the government would move to overhaul the legal framework that L. Paul Bremer III, administrator of the former U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, set up in 2004 shielding private security contractors from Iraqi courts. Dabbagh added that the Iraqi government would do so without the input of the United States.

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