- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq’s government spokesman insisted Tuesday that the former Blackwater Worldwide can have no long-term presence in the country and said authorities will continue to press for compensation for a deadly September 2007 shooting.

Ali al-Dabbagh confirmed that the company _ now known as Xe _ will have a presence at least until summer in some ground and air protection roles, but gave no other details of when the last former Blackwater units could be out of Iraq.

Iraq is currently making plans to take over some of the company’s roles, such as helicopter patrols, but needs at least until May 2010 to train local units. He said a “company will extend its work” to help protect Iraqi airspace until next year, but he later clarified that he was not referring to the former Blackwater. He did not say what company could serve in the stopgap role.

“We do not want Blackwater to work in Iraqi airspace or land … under one name or another,” he said. “We will press for compensation.”

Some Iraqis wounded in the Sept. 16, 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s busy Nisoor Square said they were dismayed to hear the company will work in Iraq longer than previously thought.

After the Nisoor Square melee, which left 17 Iraqis dead and another 20 wounded, Iraqi officials ruled that North Carolina-based Blackwater would be barred from operating in the country. Despite the ban, the State Department renewed Blackwater’s contract seven months later, in April 2008.

In January of this year, Iraqi authorities denied the company an operating license.

Hussein Jabir, a Baghdad lawyer hit by gunfire in Nisoor Square, says he was outraged at the Iraqi government for not taking a harder stance.

“The Blackwater personnel are mercenaries. The Iraqi government knows that very well,” said Jabir, who still has bullet fragments in his arm and side.

The bloodshed strained ties between Iraq and the United States and raised questions about Washington’s use of private security in Iraq and other conflict zones.

The State Department said this month that Xe guards would stop protecting U.S. diplomats on the ground in Baghdad on May 7, when the company’s contract for that specific job expires and a new security provider, Triple Canopy, takes over. Last February, Blackwater changed its name to Xe _ pronounced ZEE _ in a bid to leave the stigma of the Nisoor Square shooting behind.

State Department officials told The Associated Press that the company will remain in some areas of southern Iraq into the summer and that its aviation service, Presidential Airways, will provide air security for U.S. diplomatic convoys into September.

Jabir said he plans to travel to the United States if the manslaughter charges against five former Backwater guards proceed.

In February, a federal judge denied two motions to dismiss the case against the five men accused in the 2007 shootings. The five argue they are not subject to U.S. civilian criminal laws because they were working overseas under a contract with the State Department to help provide security for diplomats.

“A case is proceeding in America, but I’m surprised our own government had not paid attention to the pain of the victims,” Jabir said.

Samir Hobi, a teacher wounded in the shooting, insisted that Iraqi authorities should seek direct compensation from the company.

“No one is asking for our rights,” he said. “The government doesn’t care about us. This case no longer interests them.”

Sami Hawas Hamoud al-Iz, a vendor who was shot in the leg, also demanded that the company face trial in Iraq.

“They should be punished,” he said. “We pray to God that they will not escape justice.”

(This version CORRECTS that the Iraqi government spokesman said another unnamed company, not Blackwater, could serve in a stopgap air protection role.)

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