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Blackwater gets OK to resume escorts

September 22, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

baghdad -- The security company Blackwater USA was approved Friday to resume escorting American officials in Baghdad, just days after the fatal shooting of 11 Iraqis galvanized the Iraqi government over the company's conduct and the immunity its employees enjoy from Iraqi law.

The decision by the U.S. Embassy came despite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's insistence that the State Department sack the company and his government's demand that Blackwater and other such security firms be stripped of the immunity granted them in 2004 by L. Paul Bremer III, the administrator of the former U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

"This morning, we resumed taking requests for movements. The idea was to have limited movements outside the Green Zone. Obviously this was a step taken in consultation with the Iraqi authorities," said embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo.

A senior Iraqi lawmaker, Sami Askari, said officials would be informed of Blackwater's whereabouts, but Nantongo denied that the embassy would be providing them precise details of their missions.

"This time they will be restricted; they will be required to inform the Iraqi government about their movements until the end of the investigation," said Askari, an advisor to Maliki.

The embassy announced Tuesday that it had forbidden U.S. officials to travel outside the Green Zone, the fortress-like enclave harboring the Iraqi government and the diplomatic community, citing the increased threat of attacks after the incident involving Blackwater.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments have been in consultation since Sunday, when a Blackwater security detail killed 11 people in Nisoor Square in west Baghdad's Mansour district.

A preliminary Iraqi government investigation, carried out by the Interior Ministry, found that the armed guards had fired on Iraqi civilians without provocation. In turn, Blackwater and the State Department have said the security detail had been fired upon.

Nonetheless, nearly a week into the dispute, which has seen an unprecedented stand by the Iraqi government over the conduct of private security firms, Iraqi officials have retreated after initially declaring that they would take away security contractors' immunity.

Instead, the prime minister agreed Wednesday that a joint Iraqi-U.S. commission would review the status of security contractors and also receive the results of an Iraqi and U.S. military investigation.

The investigation of the incident Sunday has been complicated by the involvement of the embassy's own diplomatic security agents, who work with and supervise Blackwater. The embassy's security department has been accused by some diplomats of having failed to challenge Blackwater over questionable episodes.

Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution expert on security contractors, was skeptical about whether the joint commission would change the rules and hold Blackwater accountable for any misconduct in Iraq.

"Based on the past track record, I don't have a lot of evidence to base that hope on, but maybe this [event] changes the game," Singer said.

Singer criticized the embassy's insistence on conducting its own investigation, parallel to the Iraqi government's inquiry.

"It is utter silliness. All it does is guarantee we will have two versions of the story, and further the disconnect and sense of double standards," he said.

'Complete review'

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that she had ordered a "full and complete review" of procedures for providing security to U.S. diplomats. Rice said she issued "directives" to State Department officials to study all facets of security practices.

The review will examine the role and function of private security guards and their "rules of engagement," department spokesman Sean McCormack said later at a briefing.

While announcing the review, Rice also made a point of defending Blackwater personnel.

"We have needed and received the protection of Blackwater for a number of years now, and they have lost their own people in protecting our own people -- and that needs to be said -- in extremely dangerous circumstances," she said.

She also noted that she had called Maliki to express her regret at the loss of life in the Sunday incident.

Singer said contractors such as Blackwater have damaged the U.S.-led effort to woo Iraqis away from Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists.

"It has hindered rather than helped us in the counterinsurgency," he said.

The animosity was evident at Friday prayers in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, where a senior cleric railed against Blackwater and warned Washington that apologies like that made by Rice were not enough.

"It is important that these companies be regulated by the law, and therefore an apology from Rice is not enough. Thousands of Iraqi children, women and elderly have been killed -- as the Americans put it -- by accident," cleric Sadruddin Qubanchi said.

Civilian contractors also doubted that any justice would be done.

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