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Iraq probe of U.S. security firm grows

Iraq's probe into a deadly shooting by Blackwater USA in Baghdad last weekend has expanded to include allegations about the security firm's involvement in six other violent episodes this year that left at least 10 Iraqis dead.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Iraq's probe into a deadly shooting by Blackwater USA in Baghdad last weekend has expanded to include allegations about the security firm's involvement in six other violent episodes this year that left at least 10 Iraqis dead.

The incidents include the killing of three guards at a state-run media complex and the shooting death of an Iraqi journalist outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Iraqi officials say these violent encounters have made them increasingly frustrated with Blackwater's conduct in Iraq, but the government backed away Friday from its attempt to expel the company. Blackwater has said its guards acted appropriately in the weekend incident, but it did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the other episodes cited by Khalaf.

"These acts, this is what made the Ministry of Interior stop trusting them," Khalaf said in an interview. He said the ministry's findings would be referred to court for possible criminal prosecution.

On Friday, Blackwater-protected convoys resumed leaving the Green Zone, three days after the U.S. Embassy froze such travel amid Iraqi declarations that the company would be expelled. Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said the convoys had resumed "on a limited basis" after "consultation with Iraqi authorities." She said it was "likely that Blackwater will be supporting with some of the movements."

The North Carolina-based company, with an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq, protects virtually every senior American diplomat and civilian official here.

Operation without license
Bassam Ridha, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, conceded that the Iraqi government, at least for now, cannot follow through on a ban on Blackwater, even though the firm has been operating without a license for more than a year. "The reality of the matter is we can't do that," Ridha said.

The ministry said Blackwater guards fired without provocation at a Baghdad square on Sunday, killing 11 people and wounding 12. The shootings sparked outrage across the country and spurred the strongest effort yet by Iraq's government to assert control over the tens of thousands of security contractors who operate without regulation and sometimes with impunity in the country. They have been shielded for years from Iraqi laws by a regulation written by U.S. occupation authorities before the nation's post-invasion government was formed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that she had ordered a "full and complete" review of the department's handling of security contractors in Iraq. "We will review how we carry out our security," she told reporters in Washington. "We take seriously what happened in Iraq."

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said allegations of misconduct by Blackwater will be investigated by a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee. "We are committed to working with the Iraqi government to address both any individual incidents that may have occurred as well as the broader questions of security and safety related to the operation of personal security details," he said.

Matthew Degn, who until recently served as senior adviser to the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate, which oversees private security, said the new allegations should be viewed with caution. He said Iraqi authorities frequently made charges against private security firms, including Blackwater, that were not supported by evidence. Degn said the inflated accounts heightened the powerlessness Iraqi officials felt over their inability to control Blackwater.

To bolster their case against Blackwater, Interior Ministry officials included six other incidents in their preliminary report, Khalaf said. The government had videotapes of some attacks, license plate numbers of Blackwater vehicles involved and eyewitness accounts implicating Blackwater, he said.

'Really very ugly'
In one of the most violent episodes cited by Khalaf, Blackwater guards shot three guards at Iraq's state-run Iraqiya television network on Feb. 7.

"It's videotaped. And it's really very ugly when you look at it," Khalaf said.

Habib al-Sadr, the head of Iraqiya television, said, "Blackwater neither paid any compensation to the victims' families nor offered a letter of apology to them for this horrible, unjustifiable act."

On Sept. 9, Blackwater guards killed five people and wounded 10 near the Baghdad municipality building, Khalaf said, and three days later Blackwater guards severely wounded five people in east Baghdad.

According to the Interior Ministry investigation, Sunday's shootings began around noon, shortly after a bomb exploded about a mile from Nisoor Square in Baghdad's Mansour area. Blackwater guards were escorting a State Department motorcade of at least four vehicles. The convoy entered the square, and the guards quickly took positions to protect their passengers, halting traffic.

One car, carrying a couple and their child, did not stop and was fired upon by the guards, Khalaf said. "The father was shot first, the woman was yelling, and the policeman came to save them. And they continued to shoot at them, and continued shooting till they set fire to the car," he said, referring to the Blackwater guards.

The other victims were in nearby cars or standing close to the gunfire, Khalaf said.

Several witnesses reiterated Khalaf's account. "She was screaming and holding her son in her lap," said a traffic policeman at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It looked like [a Blackwater guard] used some kind of missile launcher to hit the car."

Who fired first?
The policeman and his colleagues entered the crowded intersection but rushed for cover when Blackwater began shooting at them. A second traffic officer said that he ducked behind his guard booth and that Blackwater guards strafed it with bullets, breaking the window.

"They kept shooting for no reason. No one shot at them," the first policeman said.

U.S. officials have maintained that the convoy was fired upon in the square.

Khalaf said the Interior Ministry has drafted legislation that would place strict controls on foreign security firms. Those that commit crimes "will be punished according to Iraqi law," he added.

Hamid Rashia Mualla, a Shiite legislator, predicted that Iraq's parliament would unite behind such legislation. Although security contractors have an important mission, he said, they need to be regulated. "When mistakes happen, there should be some resolution to these mistakes, especially when these mistakes concern innocent people's blood," he said.