- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iraqi official conceded yesterday that the expulsion of Blackwater USA would create a “security vacuum” in Baghdad and said the United States and Iraq were instead working on revamping regulations governing private security companies.

The suspected role of Blackwater guards in the deaths of at least 11 civilians near a square in central Baghdad has thrown a spotlight on the practices of foreign security contractors, whose aggressive protection of diplomats and other dignitaries has long angered Iraqis.

The Moyock, N.C.-based company has insisted that its guards came under fire and shot back only to defend themselves.

After the Nisoor Square shooting on Sept. 16, the Interior Ministry banned Blackwater from operating in Iraq but backed off after the United States agreed to a joint investigation. The company resumed guarding a reduced number of U.S. convoys on Friday.

But officials said new rules have to be put in place to govern the behavior of the security companies.

“If we expel this company immediately, there will be a security vacuum that will demand pulling some troops off the battlefield,” said Tahseen Sheikhly, a civilian spokesman for the seven-month-old offensive against militants in Baghdad and surrounding areas. “This will create a security imbalance in securing Baghdad.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in New York for this week’s U.N. General Assembly opening, yesterday described the actions of Blackwater employees as “serious challenges to the sovereignty of Iraq.”

“The Iraqi government is responsible for its citizens, and it cannot be accepted for a security company to carry out a killing,” he said. However, he left open the possibility that Iraq and the United States would work toward a solution to the problem.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said that U.S. authorities ignored repeated complaints about past Blackwater behavior and that the company was implicated in six other fatal shootings, including one on Feb. 7 outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad that killed three building guards.

“We tried several times to contact the U.S. government through administrative and diplomatic channels to complain about the repeated involvement by Blackwater guards in several incidents that led to the killing of many Iraqis, but there were no concrete results. Our complaints went nowhere,” deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the Americans had asked the Iraqis to share any reports on Blackwater’s behavior.

“We have no official documentation on file from our Iraqi partners requesting clarification of any incident, but we’re open to sharing relevant findings from our past investigations,” she said. “We are approaching this in the spirit of cooperation and we have a joint interest in coming to a productive conclusion.”

A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is being formed to investigate the incident and examine the rules governing private security companies, which have largely operated without oversight since the war began in March 2003.

Mrs. Nantongo said the panel would have eight members on each side, including three from the U.S. military and five embassy officers, but the commission has yet to meet.

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