KIRKUK, Iraq (AFP) – Guards from a British security firm fired on a taxi in Iraq on Thursday wounding three civilians, police said, in a shooting that will put new pressure on the government to rein in private contractors.
A woman journalist was among the casualties when the guards opened fire after the taxi approached their convoy near the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police said.
“I saw a convoy of three cars pass a taxi and one of the guards took his weapon and opened fire on the taxi,” said police officer Hussain Rashid.
“I tried myself to stop the convoy but they didn’t pay attention to me. They stopped about 300 metres (yards) from the scene, then they moved,” he added.
The US Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that an incident involving one of its security teams, belonging to British company Erinys, had occurred at 10:45 am (0745 GMT) but it only mentioned one injury.
“A vehicle approached the private security team at a high rate of speed approximately 26 kilometres (16 miles) east of Kirkuk on the road to Sulaimaniyah.
“The private security team initiated escalating warning procedures under the rules for the use of force, resulting in an alleged injury to a civilian occupant of the vehicle,” the Corps said in a statement.
The US military was in the process of appointing someone to investigate the incident, the statement added.
Acting Kirkuk police chief General Torhan Yusuf told AFP that two men were wounded along with the woman journalist, who worked for TV Zagros, the television station of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party.
According to witnesses, the wounded journalist tried to get out of the taxi at one point but one of the guards stopped her by pointing his gun in her direction. Two other passengers in the taxi were unharmed.
The actions of security escorts, often used by foreign diplomats, were already under the microscope in Iraq after two high-profile shooting incidents in the capital in the past five weeks.
US firm Blackwater killed as many as 17 civilians in a shooting on September 16 and employees of an Australian-run company shot dead two women on October 9. Several investigations were launched after the Blackwater shooting when guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square while escorting a US State Department convoy.
Blackwater maintains its men were legitimately responding to an ambush, but the Iraqi government has said it intends to punish the company after its inquiries found that 17 innocent civilians were killed “deliberately”.
Before the dust had time to settle the row deepened on October 9 when a woman taxi driver mistakenly got too close to a security convoy in Baghdad’s Karrada district and came under fire from guards from another company.
The taxi driver and her female passenger died of shots to the head, while a second woman passenger and a child were wounded.
The car was left riddled with bullets and witnesses described barrages of gunfire before the convoy of Dubai-based Unity Resources Group (URG), which says its staff feared a suicide attack, sped off.
The latest shooting will pile further pressure on the Iraqi government and the US authorities to clamp down on the industry.
An adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told AFP earlier this week that Blackwater and “other companies who commit crimes” must leave the country.
Since the Blackwater shooting, the Iraqi government has drawn up a bill to regulate the activities of private security contractors.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates wants all armed security contractors working for the US government in Iraq to be brought under a single, possibly military command.