- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — American convoys under the protection of Blackwater USA resumed today, four days after the U.S. Embassy suspended all land travel by its diplomats and other civilian officials in response to the alleged killing of civilians by the security firm.

A top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had earlier conceded it may prove difficult for the Iraqi government to follow through on threats to expel Blackwater and other Western security contractors.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation into Sunday’s shooting was ongoing, said a way out of the Blackwater crisis could be the payment of compensation to victims’ families and an agreement from all sides on a new set of rules for their operations in Iraq.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the decision to resume land travel outside the heavily fortified Green Zone was made after consultations with the Iraqi governments. She said the convoys will be limited to essential missions.

Nantongo declined to comment on an Interior Ministry report that officials said concluded that Blackwater guards opened fire Sunday from four positions on a square in western Baghdad after a vehicle near their convoy failed to stop.

“We’re waiting for the results of the investigation, which we are conducting as quickly as we can,” she said.

The U.S. ban announced Tuesday had confined most American officials to the Green Zone, a 3 1/2-square-mile area in the center of the city that houses the American Embassy and thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors.

The decision kept them from visiting U.S.-funded construction sites or Iraqi officials elsewhere in the country except by helicopter an indication of how dependent the State Department is on Blackwater protection.

Blackwater has said its employees acted “lawfully and appropriately” in response to an armed attack against a State Department convoy. Several Iraqi witnesses and officials claimed the security guards were the first to open fire.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have formed a joint committee to probe the widely differing accounts.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said a report found that the security guards opened fire first on Iraqi drivers.

The report, Khalaf said, recommended annulling a legal provision that gives immunity to foreign security companies operating in Iraq. It also recommended Blackwater compensate the victims’ families and that all foreign security companies be replaced by Iraqi companies.

According to Khalaf, a car bomb detonated around noon Sunday near al-Rahman mosque in Mansour, a mile north of Nisoor Square. “Minutes later, two mortar rounds landed nearby Nisoor Square and they (Blackwater) thought that they were under attack,” Khalaf said.

“They started shooting randomly from four positions in the square, killing 11 civilians and injuring 12 others. The first one who was killed was a driver who failed to stop and then his wife,” Khalaf said.

Meanwhile, followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani refused to attend Friday sermons in their mosques in the southern city of Basra, in protest of the overnight assassination of two aides to the country’s top Shiite cleric one in Diwaniyah province and the other in in the southern Basra area.

The deaths bring to at least five the number of al-Sistani aides slain since early August but it remains unclear if the killings reflect internal Shiite disputes or are the work of Sunni insurgents opposed to the vast influence enjoyed by al-Sistani over Iraq’s Shiites and politics since Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster.

Al-Sistani’s office in the holy city of Najaf declined to comment on the latest slayings. Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili called on the government to step up measures to protect clerics.

The reclusive cleric, who is in his 70s and commands the deep respect of Iraq’s majority Shiites, has been the target of at least one assassination attempt since 2003.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military said Friday an American soldier was killed in an explosion Thursday in the volatile Diyala province north of the Iraqi capital. Another U.S. soldier died in a non-combat related incident in Tamim province Thursday.

Also today, a roadside bomb killed a Romanian soldier near Tallil in southern Iraq, the Romanian defense ministry said.

Separately, authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq called for the release of an Iranian detained by U.S. forces Thursday in Sulaimaniyah.

The U.S. military said he was smuggling in roadside bombs as a member of the elite Iranian paramilitary Quds Force, which is accused by the United States of arming and training Shiite militias in Iraq.

A Kurdish government stement said the man was part of an Iranian delegation of economists and businessmen, with an “official invitation.” A spokesman, Fuad Hussein, said the detention was “illegitimate.”

The U.S. detentions of Iranians including five grabbed during a U.S. raid in the northern city of Irbil is a sensitive subject for Iraqi officials trying to balance the interests of their rival U.S. backers and Iran, powerful allies of the Shiite-led government.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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