- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

The State Department yesterday said a joint U.S.-Iraq commission has been created to examine the rules governing private security firms that guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq.

The Washington Times, quoting Blackwater USA, the North Carolina-based security contractor, reported yesterday that several contractors have declined to apply for Iraqi licenses because Iraqi officials demanded million-dollar bribes.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply questioned the version of an incident earlier this week when 11 persons were killed, telling reporters in Baghdad, “We will not tolerate the killing of our citizens in cold blood.”

Some 4½ years after the U.S.-led invasion, rules of engagement and oversight for the thousands of foreign security contractors in Iraq are not clear.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the joint panel would not conduct its own investigation of the incident but would focus on the larger questions of the regulations and oversight for the firms used by the U.S. government to provide security at the embassy and other sites in Iraq.

“It is not an investigative body doing field forensics on this particular matter,” he said.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie said Baghdad will press the commission to review the 2004 regulation — written when Iraq was under a U.S.-led administration — giving the security contractors immunity from Iraqi law.

U.S. officials clearly saw the need to respond to popular anger in Iraq, as questions continue about what happened when a U.S. diplomatic convoy protected by Blackwater guards came under attack in a Baghdad square Sunday. The U.S. Embassy has temporarily halted land travel for U.S. diplomats and civilian personnel outside the protected Green Zone after the Iraqi government ordered Blackwater to cease operations in the country.

Blackwater officials denied wrongdoing. “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,” spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said Monday.

Mr. al-Maliki said the company’s description was “not accurate” and said Sunday’s incident was the seventh violation of its kind by Blackwater.

Iraqi officials, who estimated that 20 civilians were killed in the firefight, said their investigation found that Blackwater personnel began firing indiscriminately in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square to cut through a traffic jam after a car bomb exploded near the U.S. convoy.

The U.S. firm strongly asserted that Blackwater helicopters fired on civilians in the square as the convoy made its escape, as some Iraqi witnesses have reportedly said.

“Our information is that there was a violation” by Blackwater, said Mr. al-Maliki. “We moved to form a committee to reveal to the world whether those killed were armed or innocent.”

Mr. Casey said the new joint commission would receive the results of a U.S. investigation into the incident and may take findings from a separate Iraqi probe as well. No U.S. officials have been nominated for the panel, although Mr. Casey said he expected the makeup would be “fairly senior-level.”

The spokesman said the U.S. government has not been officially informed by Baghdad that Blackwater is barred from working in the country. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad said the security guards involved in Sunday’s clash were still in the country but declined to describe the status of the investigation.

The U.S. military announced yesterday that a U.S. soldier was killed the previous day during an attack in southern Baghdad.

Another soldier died yesterday of causes unrelated to battle in Salahuddin province, the military said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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