The government took a hard stance Tuesday against 33 foreigners and 10 Iraqis detained after a shooting involving their convoy run by a U.S.-contracted firm in Baghdad, saying they were accused of opening fire randomly and wounding an Iraqi woman.
The U.S. military said the convoy belonged to Almco Group, an Iraqi-run company that has contracts with U.S.-led forces, but that it was unclear if those detained were operating under the auspices of those contracts or others when the shooting occurred Monday.
Almco's chief executive said the employees were working on a local private construction project, and security for the convoy was provided by a local Iraqi security company, Al Iraq Al Moaser, which could not immediately be reached for comment.
"There was no random shooting," Almco CEO Namir El Akabi told The Associated Press in an e-mail, adding the woman suffered a "surface scratch wound" and had been released from the hospital.
Security firms under scrutiny
Monday's incident follows a series of recent shootings in which foreign security guards have allegedly killed Iraqis. Last month, the Cabinet sent parliament a bill to lift immunity for foreign private security companies that has been in effect since the U.S. occupation began in 2003.
"We are steadfastly against any security company that behaves recklessly when it comes to the lives of Iraqis or the violation of Iraqi laws," said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government said it has ordered an investigation into Monday's shooting.
Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Almco, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has contracts with U.S.-led forces to provide food, water and other support functions, as well as the construction of a justice compound.
But he said it was not yet determined whether those detained were working on those contracts or another at the time of the incident.
He said the detainees were being held at an Iraqi army headquarters and coalition forces were with them to ensure they receive proper treatment.
Violence shifts north
Police also reported more scattered attacks north of Baghdad on Tuesday, a day after a top U.S. commander cautioned that violence has shifted to northern Iraq even as it ebbs in Baghdad.
Suspected al-Qaida in Iraq fighters ambushed the house of a Sunni policeman near Baqouba, killing three family members and wounding two. A roadside bomb targeted a Kurdish convoy of trucks carrying concrete barriers, killing a driver and wounding two others near Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of the capital.
"What you're seeing is the enemy shifting," Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq, told Pentagon reporters Monday in a video conference from Tikrit. "The attacks are still much higher than I would like here in the north but they are continuing to decrease in numbers and scale of attacks."
Iraqi police and army forces said they targeted al-Qaida hideouts in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Tuesday, detaining 16 suspects, including senior members of the terror network and affiliated insurgent groups, and seizing ammunition, weapons and six stolen cars.
U.S. forces backed by airstrikes also killed 17 suspected militants and detained 16 in a series of operations beginning Sunday primarily in northern Iraq, the military said in separate statements.
Troops found explosive vests on three of the slain militants after a firefight during coordinated raids east of the Sunni stronghold of Samarra, and a detention facility with the bodies of two men bound in shackles and apparently killed before the troops arrived.
Violence continued in Baghdad as well, with a parked car bomb killing one civilian and wounding six others, including many school-age boys. The head of the geological survey department and two engineers working for a private computer company also were killed in separate drive-by shootings elsewhere in the capital, police said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Dozens detained in convoy shooting
Al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman, said the convoy was driving on the wrong side of the road in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah when the woman was wounded in a shooting that took place about midday.
He said four vehicles were seized along with four machine guns, eight rifles and three pistols.
He said those arrested included two Fijians with American nationalities, but U.S. officials denied any Americans were detained, saying the confusion may have been caused by the fact that the two Fijians held identification cards issued by the U.S. Defense Department.
The other detainees included 21 people from Sri Lanka, nine from Nepal and 10 Iraqis and one Indian. They face charges including traveling no the wrong side of the road in a four-vehicle convoy, firing randomly and trying to kill a female citizen, al-Moussawi said.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the detainees had been questioned by an Iraqi judge and were accused of having an intention to killed Iraqi civilians among other legal violations.
He promised the government would release those proven innocent by the investigation, saying the work of private contractors is important but "these companies should adhere to the laws and regulations set by the Iraqi government.
The Almco executive said no formal charges had been filed.
"The Iraqi legal system is taking its procedures," El Akabi said. "We will wait and see the final investigation of this incident by the Iraqi government."
The role of private security guards has become particularly controversial following a Sept. 16 shooting in which Blackwater Worldwide guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Baghdad's Nisoor Square.