Thursday, May 7, 2009

BAGHDAD | The American security firm once known as Blackwater ended its operations in the diplomatic hub of Baghdad on Thursday, bringing to a close a bitter chapter in U.S.-Iraq relations that began with a deadly shooting by its contractors.

Iraqis welcomed the departure from the capital of the company, which has protected American diplomats in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. The company, which has changed its name to Xe, will continue to have guards in some southern areas and to run its aviation service through September.

The end of the firm’s Baghdad operations comes nearly two years after the Iraqi government first demanded it leave after the September 2007 shooting on a busy square in central Baghdad that left as many as 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

It was small consolation for Iraqis.

“As far as I’m concerned, this decision should have been taken years ago. Any security firm in Iraq should have used Iraqi personnel so that they could help them know Iraqi culture,” Baghdad resident Jabar Farhan said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said Xe’s contract for Baghdad ended Thursday and a new security provider, Herndon-based Triple Canopy, was taking over.

Blackwater guards will remain protecting American diplomats in the predominantly Shi’ite cities of Hillah, Najaf and Karbala, all south of Baghdad, until Aug. 4, according to the State Department.

Moyock, N.C.-based Xe had continued operations in Iraq despite a decision by the Iraqi government to deny it a license in January, raising questions over the strength of Iraq’s sovereignty as it remains heavily dependent on the U.S. for security.

Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said the government recognized that the U.S. administration needed some transition time in shutting down the company’s operations.

“There were certain outstanding technical issues involving the use of Iraqi airspace that required a limited extension,” he said.

Iraqis have long complained about the heavy-handed behavior of security contractors for Blackwater and other companies. That anger peaked after the 2007 shootings in Nisoor Square.

Five Blackwater guards have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and weapons charges in the shooting, which prosecutors say was an unprovoked attack on civilians. A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another.

Triple Canopy is one of three private companies, along with Xe and Virginia-based DynCorp, that have handled security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. But Xe is the largest, having won more than $1 billion in government contracts since the March 2003 start of the Iraq war.

Blackwater first got attention in 2004 when a mob of insurgents ambushed a company security detail in the city of Fallujah, killing four guards and burning their bodies, stringing some of their remains from a bridge.

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