BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday disputed Blackwater USA’s version of a weekend shooting that left at least 11 people dead and declared he would not tolerate “the killing of our citizens in cold blood.”
Land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials outside the fortified Green Zone remained suspended for a second day after Iraqi authorities ordered Blackwater to stop working as an investigation continues into the Sunday incident.
The Moyock, N.C.-based firm is the main provider of bodyguards and armed escorts for American government civilian employees in Iraq.
Americans and Iraqis have offered widely differing accounts of the Sunday incident, with Blackwater insisting that its guards returned fire against armed insurgents who were threatening American diplomats.
But The New York Times reported late Tuesday that a preliminary review by Iraq’s Ministry of Interior found that Blackwater security guards fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman’s call to stop, killing a couple and their infant.
According to the story on the Times’ Web site, the report said that Blackwater helicopters also had fired — a finding the company denies. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense said that 20 Iraqis were killed, considerably higher than the 11 dead reported before.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the Sunday shooting was “the seventh of its kind” involving Blackwater “and these violations should be dealt with.”
“We will not tolerate the killing of our citizens in cold blood,” al-Maliki said. “The work of this company has been stopped in order to know the reasons.”
Al-Maliki said Blackwater’s version of the events “is not accurate” and that U.S. diplomats could use the services of other security companies.
“Our information is that there was a violation,'” he said. “We moved to form a committee to reveal to the world whether those killed were armed or innocent.”
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said in a statement late Monday that “Blackwater’s independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday.”
“The `civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire,” she said. “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.”
The Interior Ministry said Monday that it had permanently revoked Blackwater’s license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country. The following day the government rolled back, suggesting the firm’s operations were only suspended pending completion of a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to the Middle East, said Tuesday night that it was too soon to tell what effect the ban will have on U.S. operations in Iraq. Rice said she has expressed regret at the loss of life to the Iraqi prime minister.
“I committed to him that we were as interested as the Iraqi government in having a full investigation into what happened … and to working with the Iraqi government to try and make certain that this sort of thing doesn’t happen,” Rice said.
Iraqis have long resented the presence of the estimated 48,000 private security contractors — including about 1,000 Blackwater employees — considering them a mercenary force that runs roughshod over civilians in their own country.
Blackwater, whose convoys of SUVs careen through the streets with weapons displayed, has been singled out for much of the criticism.
“Blackwater has a reputation. If you want over-over-the-top, gun-toting security with high profile and all the bells and whistles, Blackwater are the people you are going to go with,” said James Sammons, a former Australian Special Air Service commander who now works for British-based AKE Group that also provides security in Iraq.
He said any civilian killings by security contractors tarnish the reputations of all of them.
“We get lumped in with that and it makes the job harder for the rest of us,” said Sammons, who is AKE’s Asia-Pacific regional director, based in Sydney, Australia.
The Iraqi Cabinet decided Tuesday to review the status of all foreign security companies. Still, it was unclear how the dispute would play out, given the government’s need to appear resolute in defending national sovereignty while maintaining its relationship with Washington at a time when U.S. public support for the mission is faltering.
Nevertheless, some Iraqi officials said privately it would be difficult to order Blackwater out of the country because the Americans rely so heavily on the company for their security.
“It will be difficult for the Iraqi government to make them leave the country because they protect the embassy,” said one aide to al-Maliki. “Maybe they will make a commitment that they study their moves” or agree to change the name of the company.
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.
Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that the government ban all 48,000 foreign security contractors.
Al-Sadr’s office in Najaf said the government should nullify contracts of all foreign security companies, branding them “criminal and intelligence firms.”
“This aggression would not have happened had it not been for the presence of the occupiers who brought these companies, most of whose members are criminals and ex-convicts in American and Western prisons,” the firebrand cleric said in a statement.
Al-Sadr insisted the government prosecute those involved and ensure that families of the victims receive compensation but did not threaten to unleash his Mahdi Army militia in retaliation for the killings.
Blackwater is among three private security firms employed by the State Department to protect employees in Iraq, and expelling it would create huge problems for U.S. government operations in this country.
A 2004 regulation issued by the U.S. occupation authority granted security contractors full immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Unlike American military personnel, the civilian contractors are also not subject to U.S. military law either.
Hassan al-Rubaie, a member of the parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, said an investigative committee has been formed to consider lifting the contractors’ immunity.
Blackwater and other foreign contractors accused of killing Iraqi citizens have gone without facing charges or prosecution in the past. But the latest incident drew a much stronger reaction by the Iraqi government.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed the day before in an attack in the south of the capital. The death raised to at least 3,787 members of the U.S. military who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an AP count.