Reporting from Baghdad — Iraq has given hundreds of guards linked to the private security company formerly known as Blackwater a week to leave the country or face arrest, Interior Ministry officials said Wednesday.
The order follows the dismissal in December by a U.S. federal judge of murder charges against five Blackwater guards accused of killing Iraqi civilians in a 2007 shooting incident on Baghdad's Nisoor Square.
The Iraqi government said that 17 people died in the shooting, in which Blackwater guards opened fire on the busy square after they said they had come under attack, though an FBI investigation found only 14 deaths.
About 250 guards employed by Blackwater at the time of the shooting have been told that they must surrender their weapons and leave the country within seven days, said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani told the Associated Press the guards had been notified three days earlier. Iraq refused to renew Blackwater's operating license after the shootings, which infuriated Iraqis and strained relations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
In 2009, the U.S. State Department gave Blackwater's contract to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq to another security company, Triple Canopy, and Blackwater changed its name to Xe. Many former Blackwater guards went to work for Triple Canopy, which is now responsible for guarding the U.S. Embassy, and some found work with other security companies in Iraq.
In Washington, a U.S. official said the State Department no longer has any contracts with Blackwater in Iraq, adding that there are no Blackwater guards involved in the Nisoor Square incident in the country.
Iraq has scheduled elections to be held in March, and any move against Blackwater is likely to appeal to voters. Bolani, as head of a secular coalition, is a leading candidate in the elections.
The Iraqi government has said it plans to file a separate civil suit against Blackwater in U.S. courts, and last month U.S. Vice President Joe Biden promised Iraq during a visit to Baghdad that the Obama administration would appeal the decision to dismiss the murder charges.
Blackwater has reached out-of-court settlements providing compensation to 45 wounded people and the families of 19 slain Iraqis, all of whom claim they were victims of shootings by Blackwater guards in several different incidents.
Ahmed is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad Bureau.