BAGHDAD — Guards in a security convoy opened fire on a car at an intersection in central Baghdad on Tuesday, killing two Christian women, police said. The Iraqi government said preliminary reports indicated a Western security company was behind the shooting.
Separately, suicide car bombings targeting a local police chief and a Sunni sheik working with U.S. forces killed at least 19 people.
The new killings, allegedly at the hands of private security workers, comes as Iraqi authorities called on the U.S. government to sever all contracts with Blackwater USA within six months. They also want the firm to pay $8 million in compensation to families of each of the 17 people killed when its guards sprayed a traffic circle with heavy machine gun fire last month.
The demands — part of an Iraqi government report examined by The Associated Press — also called on U.S. authorities to hand over the Blackwater security agents involved in the Sept. 16 shootings to face possible trial in Iraqi courts.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the convoy did not appear to be one from Blackwater USA, which has denied any involvement.
He initially said “preliminary reports indicate that an American security company has opened fire on two women and they were killed,” but he later amended the claim to say the shooters were employees of a “Western” firm.
“But I don’t think it’s Blackwater. There are many security companies working in Iraq and some of them are not even registered,” he told The Associated Press.
Not U.S. diplomatic convoy
The State Department said the convoy was not protecting American diplomats, but an embassy spokeswoman said an American nongovernmental organization may have been involved.
“There may be a contractual relationship with a U.S. NGO,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said. “We’re working on clarifying that.”
At the scene of the shooting, police and witnesses could not immediately give more details about the gunmen in Baghdad except to say they were in a convoy of four SUVs commonly used by private security companies and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.
"There has been an incident, an attack on civilians. Two Iraqi women were killed and an investigation is going on to find which security company it was," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
While there was no indication Blackwater USA was involved, the attack threatened to increase calls for limits on the security firms that mounted after the Sept. 16 shooting deaths of as many as 17 Iraqi civilians allegedly that company’s guards. The American security company said its employees were acting in self-defense.
The women were in a white car that drove into the Masbah intersection in the central Karradah district as the convoy of three white and one gray SUVs was stopped about 100 yards away, according to a policeman who witnessed the shooting from a nearby checkpoint.
The men in the SUVs threw a smoke bomb in an apparent bid to warn the car against coming forward, said Riyadh Majid, the policeman. The woman driving the car tried to stop, but was killed along with the passenger when two of the guards in the convoy opened fire, Majid said.
There was no immediate indication as to who was responsible for the shooting or what had triggered it.
The tone of the Iraqi report on Blackwater appears to signal further strains between the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the White House over the deaths in Nisoor Square — which have prompted a series of U.S. and Iraqi probes and raised questions over the use of private security contractors to guard U.S. diplomats and other officials.
Al-Maliki ordered the investigation by his defense minister and other top security and police officials on Sept. 22. The findings — which were translated from Arabic by AP — mark the most definitive Iraqi positions and contentions about the shootings last month.
The report also highlights the differences in death tolls and accounts that have complicated efforts to piece together the chain of events as one Blackwater-protected convoy raced back toward Baghdad’s Green Zone after a nearby bombing, while a second backup team in four gun trucks sped into the square as a backup team.
The Iraqi investigation — first outlined Thursday by The Associated Press — charges the four Blackwater vehicles called to the square began shooting without provocation. Blackwater contends its employees came under fire first.
The government, at the conclusion of its investigation, said 17 Iraqis died. Initial reports put the toll at 11.
It said the compensation — totaling $136 million — was so high “because Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in this country.”
The U.S. military pays compensation money to the families of civilians killed in battles or to cover property damage, but at far lower amounts.
The United States has not made conclusive findings about the shooting, though there are multiple investigations under way and Congress has opened inquiries into the role of private security contractors. Last week, the FBI took over a State Department investigation, raising the prospect that it could be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.
Report: Iraq courts proper venue for trial
The Iraqi government report said its courts were to proper venue in which to bring charges.
It said Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq expired on June 2, 2006, meaning it had no immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws set down after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The government report also challenged the claim that a decree in June 2004 by then-Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer granted Blackwater immunity from legal action in incidents such as the one in Nisoor Square. The report said the Blackwater guards could be charged under a criminal code from 1969.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the diplomatic mission would have no comment on the report. Iraq’s Interior Ministry spokesman, Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the document was in American hands.
The report found that Blackwater guards also had killed 21 Iraqi civilians and wounded 27 in previous shootings since it took over security for U.S. diplomats in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion. The Iraqi government did not say whether it would try to prosecute in those cases.
The State Department has counted 56 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards in Iraq this year. All were being reviewed as part of the comprehensive inquiry ordered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.