Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday disputed Blackwater USA’s version of a weekend shooting that left at least 11 people dead, and he declared he would not tolerate “the killing of our citizens in cold blood.”
Also Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said the United States and Iraq will form a joint commission to look into the security incident and to review the U.S. Embassy’s security practices.
The size and composition of the commission have yet to be determined, but its members are charged with assessing the results of both U.S. and Iraqi investigations of Sunday’s incident, reaching a common conclusion about what happened and recommending possible changes to the way in which the embassy and its contractors handle security, an official said.
“The commission’s goal is to make joint policy recommendations, including specific suggestions for improving U.S. and Iraqi procedures regarding government-affiliated personal security details,” deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
Land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials outside the fortified Green Zone remained suspended for a second day after Iraqi authorities ordered Blackwater to stop working as an investigation continues into the Sunday incident.
The Moyock, N.C.-based firm is the main provider of bodyguards and armed escorts for American government civilian employees in Iraq.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the contractors involved in the shooting were still in Iraq, but she refused to comment on the specifics of the case pending an investigation.
Differing accounts of incident
Americans and Iraqis have offered widely differing accounts of the incident, with Blackwater insisting its guards returned fire against armed insurgents who were threatening American diplomats.
The New York Times reported that a preliminary review by the Interior Ministry found Blackwater security guards fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman’s call to stop, killing a couple and their infant.
The report said Blackwater helicopters also had fired — a finding the company denied. The Defense Ministry said 20 Iraqis were killed, considerably higher than the 11 dead reported before.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the shooting was “the seventh of its kind” involving Blackwater, “and these violations should be dealt with.” He said U.S. diplomats could use the services of other security companies.
“We will not tolerate the killing of our citizens in cold blood,” al-Maliki said. “The work of this company has been stopped in order to know the reasons.”
Al-Maliki said Blackwater’s version of the events “is not accurate.”
“Our information is that there was a violation,” he said. “We moved to form a committee to reveal to the world whether those killed were armed or innocent.”
He said Blackwater “should be held accountable for such a violation.”
Blackwater defends actions
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said in a statement late Monday that “Blackwater’s independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday.”
“The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire,” she said. “Blackwater regrets any loss of life but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life.”
U.S. officials said earlier this week that the motorcade was traveling through Nisoor Square on the way back to the Green Zone when a car bomb exploded, followed by volleys of small-arms fire that disabled one of the vehicles.
An Iraqi government official said Wednesday that initial findings indicated the security guards began shooting and throwing stun grenades to get the convoy out of a traffic jam.
Some passers-by were struck by bullets and a couple and their infant were killed, the official said. But an official at Yarmouk Hospital said the infant was only wounded. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
Civilians give differing accounts
Witnesses also said Blackwater guards opened fired at civilians, but they gave conflicting details and their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
Hairdresser Suhad Mirza, 29, said she was working in her salon about 250 yards from Nisoor Square when she heard sirens and went outside to see security guards in a convoy of SUVs begin “shooting randomly at the people at low level.”
“Apparently, the guards wanted to make their way through the traffic jam made by Iraqi army checkpoint,” she said. “There was no provocation and the guards were using their ammunition to move quicker in the street.”
Imad Mansour Abid, 35, said he was at his office nearby when the incident occurred.
“Several SUVs were passing from Nisoor Square heading to Mansour when an explosion took place,” he said. “This was followed by heavy gunfire opened by guards of the security vehicles. Gunfire was directed at streets in the area with civilians cars and passers-by and that fire lasted for 10 to 20 minutes.”
The status of Blackwater, one of three private security companies that provide protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq, remained unclear Wednesday despite Iraqi government statements that the firm’s operating license had been suspended.
The Interior Ministry said Monday it had permanently revoked Blackwater’s license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country. The following day the government rolled back, suggesting the firm’s operations were only suspended pending completion of a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation.
Rice promises full investigation
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to the Middle East, said Tuesday night that it was too soon to tell what effect the ban will have on U.S. operations in Iraq. Rice said she had expressed regret at the loss of life to al-Maliki.
“I committed to him that we were as interested as the Iraqi government in having a full investigation into what happened ... and to working with the Iraqi government to try and make certain that this sort of thing doesn’t happen,” Rice said.
Iraqis have long resented the presence of the estimated 48,000 private security workers — including about 1,000 Blackwater employees — considering them a mercenary force that runs roughshod over civilians in their own country.
Blackwater, whose convoys of SUVs careen through the streets with weapons displayed, has been singled out for much of the criticism.
“Blackwater has a reputation. If you want over-over-the-top, gun-toting security with high profile and all the bells and whistles, Blackwater are the people you are going to go with,” said James Sammons, a former Australian Special Air Service commander who now works for British-based AKE Group that also provides security in Iraq.
He said any civilian killings by security contractors tarnish the reputations of all of them.
“We get lumped in with that and it makes the job harder for the rest of us,” said Sammons, who is AKE’s Asia-Pacific regional director, based in Sydney, Australia.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed Tuesday in an attack in southern Baghdad and two died Wednesday, one in battle west of the capital and the other from non-combat causes. The deaths raised to at least 3,789 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.