- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Iraqi government yesterday banned a U.S. security firm that protects U.S. civilian and military personnel over its involvement in a Sunday incident that left eight persons dead, forcing the embassy to either ignore the order or severely limit the movements of its officials.
VIDEO: Iraq expels American security firm

The Interior Ministry’s order, which demanded that Blackwater employees stop work and leave Iraq, is bound to raise tensions between the Bush administration and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose leadership recently has been criticized by U.S. officials, including the ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker.

Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said contractors thought to be working for Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA indiscriminately opened fire on civilians after an explosion Sunday as an embassy convoy passed through a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad. Iraqi reports said the gunfire killed eight bystanders and wounded 11.

“We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory,” Mr. Khalaf said. “We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities.”

U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad said they will conduct their own investigation and called for patience until all the facts are established.

“We want to determine all of the facts as best we can,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormick told reporters. “We have committed to sharing those facts and the results of our investigation with the Iraqi government.”

In Baghdad, embassy spokesman Johann Schmonsees said the Blackwater guards “responded” to a car bomb that exploded “in proximity to a place” where embassy officials attended a meeting. They were returning to the Green Zone at the time of the blast.

Late yesterday, Time magazine published on its Web site quotes from a confidential U.S. incident report that differed from the accounts offered by Iraqi witnesses and the U.S. Embassy.

According to that report, the skirmish occurred at 12:08 p.m. on Sunday when “the motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations” as it moved through the Mansour neighborhood of west Baghdad.

A Blackwater official told the magazine that “the convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job, they fired back to defend human life.”

Embassy convoys are always heavily protected by contractors from Blackwater and other private U.S. companies, which are openly hated by many Iraqis, who view them as a mercenary force operating outside Iraqi law.

Blackwater in particular has earned a reputation for aggressively defending its clients, and has been accused before of unnecessarily killing civilians. In one of the most gruesome incidents of the war, a mob killed four of its employees in Fallujah in 2004 and hung their burned and mutilated bodies from a bridge.

But Lawrence T. Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association in Iraq, said the Interior Ministry welcomes the use of private security companies “as one component of a broad array of security elements,” because “those companies have no tribal or religious affiliation and can be trusted.”

U.S. officials privately expressed dismay at the Iraqi government’s speedy branding of the Blackwater guards as “criminals” before more facts about the incident are known.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. al-Maliki last night to offer condolences and discuss the ongoing investigation. “She reiterated that the United States does everything it can to avoid such loss of life, in contrast to the enemies of the Iraqi people who deliberately target civilians,” the State Department said.

The Interior Ministry’s revocation of Blackwater’s license puts the Bush administration in an awkward position, diplomats and security experts said.

If the Bush administration ignores the decision and continues to use Blackwater contractors, it could be seen as undermining Mr. al-Maliki’s authority. If it honors the ban, it would deprive U.S. diplomats of protection outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, which means they would not be able to leave the embassy.

Blackwater, which protects American engineers, reconstruction officials and embassy personnel, is one of the most important security companies in Iraq, with an estimated 1,000 employees in the country and at least $800 million in government contracts.

Iraqi and U.S. officials were equally confused about the legal aspects and consequences of the Sunday incident. Some Iraqi officials said they will try to bring the responsible contractors to court, but others said the Americans have immunity from Iraqi law.

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