-- The U.S. Embassy on Tuesday banned diplomats and other civilian government employees indefinitely from traveling by land outside the heavily protected Green Zone as American and Iraqi officials debated the legal status of foreign security contractors after a weekend shooting incident here in which eight civilians were reported killed.
The Iraqi government announced Tuesday that its initial investigation had determined that Blackwater USA guards fired without provocation on Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle Sunday. The account contradicted statements by the North Carolina-based security company and the U.S. State Department that the guards had come under small-arms fire after a car bomb exploded.
Iraqi authorities said they would move to overhaul the nation's laws to end the immunity of foreign contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts, a measure established by U.S.-led occupation officials after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The confrontation could prove to be a test of the sovereign powers of the Iraqi government when it clashes with American officials over prickly subjects such as U.S. dependence on private security contractors, whom many Iraqis loathe after repeated reports of wild shooting, reckless driving and abusive behavior.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Tuesday that Blackwater guards should be held accountable for Sunday's killings, which took place while the security detail was assigned to protect a State Department motorcade.
"They should not have immunity for their mistakes," Dabbagh said. "If they have made a mistake, they should be subjected to the law."
With Iraqi public opinion inflamed by the deaths, including that of a young child, the U.S. Embassy issued a brief statement late Tuesday declaring the ground-travel ban for diplomatic employees in Baghdad beyond the Green Zone -- home to most American officials in the capital. In other parts of Iraq, such officials are restricted to areas guarded by the U.S. military.
Diplomatic employees frequently move around the country by helicopter. Nonetheless, several American diplomats described the travel freeze, even if short-lived, as a blow to the embassy's work in Iraq.
"People have to get out. There is no point of having a diplomatic mission in a country if you don't get out," one U.S. diplomat said.
The travel restriction came despite recent U.S. military statements that attacks in Iraq had declined as a result of the buildup of troops this year. Last week, President Bush in a nationwide address said the troop increase he ordered in January had already improved security enough that he could soon begin withdrawing some forces.
"This suspension is in effect in order to assess mission security and procedures, as well as to assess a possible increased threat to personnel traveling with security details outside the International Zone," as the Green Zone is also known, the statement said.
Embassy officials did not further explain the need for a travel restriction, nor did they directly address details of Sunday's incident or the future role of Blackwater, which has about 1,000 employees in Iraq.
"We are pursuing discussions with the Iraqi government at the highest levels," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said. "Part of the discussions is what structure and form the investigation will take."
U.S. officials said that they were talking with the Iraqi government about what rules should guide the operations of contractors, but that the talks were preliminary and it would be difficult to untangle the issues.
U.S. officials said the embassy in Baghdad had ordered the travel halt after consultation with Washington. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was not present for those talks. He was in London on Tuesday with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief U.S. commander in Iraq, discussing war strategy with British officials.
Officials said they took the step out of "an abundance of caution," as one put it, to avoid any further complication at a time of heightened tensions. "It's an emotional issue, on all sides," one official said.
Iraqi spokesman Dabbagh said a preliminary report showed Blackwater guards "used superior firepower unnecessarily." The convoy fired recklessly when a couple's car failed to come to a complete stop at the Nisoor roundaboutin western Baghdad's Mansour district, he said.
"The car was slowing down but not stopping. They suspected them and shot and killed the couple and their small child," Dabbagh said.
Support helicopters joined the convoy in raking fire on the traffic circle, he said. At least five other people died in the shooting, Iraqi authorities said.
Dabbagh said the government would move to overhaul the legal framework that L. Paul Bremer III, administrator of the former U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, set up in 2004 shielding private security contractors from Iraqi courts. Dabbagh added that the Iraqi government would do so without the input of the United States.
"We don't need to talk to anyone else," he said.
Dabbagh said Blackwater would be able to work in Iraq once the shooting case was resolved, an apparent conciliatory gesture after the Interior Ministry said Monday that Blackwater's license had been canceled.
A U.S. diplomat said that growing frustration over the Americans' failure to rein in the security firms had transformed Sunday's shooting into a symbol of abuses committed over the years by the more than 20,000 foreign security guards that supplement U.S.-led military forces in Iraq.
"It's amazing the Iraqi government did it, but they did it because we wouldn't," the diplomat said, referring to the temporary revocation of Blackwater's license.
U.S. officials said that although Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other officials had spoken angrily about the shooting, the consultations between the governments had been calm.
"Iraq has sovereignty, but its sovereignty at the moment is imperfect because it hasn't replaced the laws that have preceded the [Coalition Provisional Authority] documents," one Western advisor to the Iraqi government said on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity.
Asked whether the U.S. government would hand over an American citizen to Iraqi authorities for questioning, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that it would depend on the results of a U.S. investigation.
"You get into issues of diplomatic immunity here," McCormack said. "It may come back to this answer of, well, it depends on the individual and their particular status."
U.S. government officials and security industry executives have argued that there are sufficient U.S. laws to prosecute misdeeds by overseas contractors in American courts.
In a rare April interview with a website dedicated to contractor issues, Blackwater President Gary Jackson said that several U.S. laws, particularly the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, or MEJA, already gave American prosecutors the right to go after private citizens operating in war zones.
"I can't put it any more simply: We don't need a new law, we need to enforce the ones we have," Jackson said. "Blackwater has always supported increased enforcement of these existing laws."
Such prosecutions have been rare. There is also a lack of agreement on whether MEJA applies to Blackwater because the group works for the State Department, not the Pentagon.
In February, David A. Passaro, hired by the CIA as a contractor, was convicted of assaulting an Afghan terrorism suspect who later died. Sentenced to eight years and four months in prison, Passaro remains the only contractor convicted of such abuses in Iraq or Afghanistan.
McCormack said the U.S. would share results of its investigation of the shootings with Iraqi authorities, and said the Iraqi government was examining its laws to see whether any were applicable.
"To boil it down very simply, there are a lot of cross-cutting jurisdictional as well as legal authorities here, and you would have to have a precise set of facts in order to be able to determine the various applicable legal authorities and whether or not there were any laws that were broken," he said.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi military investigation of Sunday's incident has also been launched, the Western advisor to the Iraqi government said.
In other developments Tuesday, two car bombs and a roadside explosion killed 15 people in east Baghdad. The deadliest attack was a car bombing in the parking lot of the Health Ministry and Baghdad's main hospital complex, killing seven people and wounding 23, police said.
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington and Said Rifai, Raheem Salman and special correspondent Usama Redha in Baghdad contributed to this report.