- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

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

A top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki 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 the condition of anonymity because the investigation into Sunday’s incident is 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 ground rules for their operations in Iraq.
VIDEO:Blackwater resumes protection for U.S. convoys

The Washington Times reported this week that many private security contractors operated in Iraq without licenses because corrupt government officials who issued them demanded bribes of up to $1 million.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington that she has ordered a “full and complete review” of security practices for U.S. diplomats in Iraq in the wake of the incident.

The review will include all aspects of protection, including the rules of engagement for security guards and under what jurisdiction they should be covered, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

He said Miss Rice ordered the review Thursday while on a plane returning from the Middle East to Washington, in a phone call to Patrick Kennedy, a veteran diplomat who will lead it.

In another development involving Blackwater, federal prosecutors are investigating whether employees of the private security firm illegally smuggled into Iraq weapons that may have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, officials said yesterday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh, N.C., is handling the investigation with help from Pentagon and State Department auditors, who have concluded there is enough evidence to file charges, the officials told the Associated Press. Blackwater is based in Moyock, N.C.

Meanwhile, in Iraq yesterday a police official said 25 persons were arrested in connection with the assassination of the leader of the U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni Arab tribesmen in Anbar province against al Qaeda in Iraq.

Those detained include the head of the security detail that was supposed to protect Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who was killed in a bombing Sept. 13, police Lt. Col. Jubeir Rashid said.

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

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

The U.S. ban, announced Tuesday, had confined most American officials to the Green Zone, a 3½-square-mile area in the center of the city that houses the U.S. Embassy and thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors.

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 claim the security guards were the first to open fire.

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

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the ministry report recommended annulling a legal provision that gives immunity to foreign security companies operating in Iraq. It also recommended Blackwater pay compensation to the victims’ families and that all foreign security companies be replaced by Iraqi security companies.

President Bush has said he expects to discuss the shootings with Mr. al-Maliki next week during a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.

“Folks like Blackwater who provide security for the State Department are under rules of engagement,” Mr. Bush said.

In other developments, the U.S. military reported the deaths of two American soldiers Thursday — one in a roadside bombing in Diyala province and another in a non-combat incident in the northern Tamim province.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the slayings of two associates of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric raised fears yesterday of a worsening Shi’ite power struggle in the country’s oil-rich south, prompting some clerics to go into hiding or abandon their robes and turbans for their own safety.

The two were killed late Thursday in separate shootings within 30 minutes in the southern cities of Basra and Diwaniyah. They joined at least four associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who have been assassinated in Najaf since June, including one stabbed to death 30 to 40 yards from the house where the Iranian-born Ayatollah al-Sistani lives.

On Tuesday, an aide to the ayatollah was shot and seriously wounded by gunmen in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. One of his guards was killed.

The killings have raised questions about the safety of Iraq’s four top Shi’ite clerics, particularly Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is known to have been the target of at least one assassination attempt since 2003.

The ayatollah’s followers in Basra refused to attend Friday sermons in their mosques to protest the latest assassinations, and the regional governor, Mohammed al-Waili, also called on the government to step up measures to protect clerics.

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