Guards from a private security company opened fire Tuesday on a car that they said ignored commands to stop, killing two women and unleashing new Iraqi rage over the convoys that protect many foreigners here.
The shootings in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood, coming less than a month after Blackwater USA guards were accused of shooting to death as many as 17 Iraqis in the capital, brought an immediate response from Iraq’s government.
“The Iraqi government is about to take strict measures to safeguard the lives of our people,” said the government spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, adding that no country should permit companies to “mess around” on its territory. “Iraqi people are equal to those of any other nation.”
Salih Fyad, an Iraqi lawmaker with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, said the shooting would make it more difficult for the government to accept the continued operations of foreign security companies in Iraq.
“I think the Iraqi government will have clear and specific demands regarding the work of these companies,” he said. “The demands are increasing to lift the immunities and hold these companies accountable.”
A top spokesman for Unity Resources Group, a security firm whose head office is in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said its guards were involved in Tuesday’s shooting. Chief Operating Officer Michael Priddin said Unity Resources, which has operated in Iraq since 2004, would work with Iraqi authorities “to find out the exact facts behind the incident.”
A company statement said the shooting occurred after a car failed to heed warnings to stop while approaching a Unity convoy.
“The first information that we have is that our security team was approached at speed by a vehicle which failed to stop despite an escalation of warnings which included hand signals and a signal flare. Finally, shots were fired at the vehicle and it stopped,” the company said in a statement.
Unity Resources, which is run by former Australian army personnel, was investigated last year in connection with the shooting of a 72-year-old agriculture professor at the University of Baghdad, according to Australian media. The Australian Foreign Ministry at the time said the professor, Kays Juma, was shot because his vehicle failed to stop at a checkpoint in the capital.
Some witnesses confirmed that a flare was fired, but at least two said guards fired into the vehicle after it had been partially disabled by warning shots. One witness said the vehicle, which carried at least three women and one child, had rolled to a halt when the women inside were shot.
The incident was likely to heighten pressure on the Iraqi government to crack down on private security details. The government has accused the Blackwater guards of firing without cause on Sept. 16, and Maliki has said the company is unfit to operate in Iraq.
The government announced the day after the shooting that Blackwater’s convoys would be banned from Iraq’s streets, but they were back on the road four days later.
The turnabout illustrated the difficult spot Maliki is in as he tries to assuage Iraqi anger toward such incidents while accommodating the U.S. State Department and other foreign governments and aid groups that employ private security firms.
Tuesday’s incident was seen by residents as another case of Iraqis paying the price for the foreign presence in their country.
“I saw two foreigners step out of their SUVs just 10 meters away from the victims’ vehicle after it had come to a stop, and then they opened fire,” said the owner of a plumbing supply store near the scene. He asked that his name not be used for security reasons.
He and others interviewed about two hours after the 1:40 p.m. shooting described a chaotic chain of events that began when a convoy of four SUVs came down a street at high speed, zigzagging among cars.
The convoy overtook a white 1990 Oldsmobile driven by a woman. Witnesses said a younger woman sat in the passenger seat. Another woman and a child were in the back.
A 27-year-old laborer who would not give his name said one guard fired at the Oldsmobile’s radiator in an apparent attempt to force it to stop after it had come within a few yards of the convoy. The car continued moving, dragging the radiator along the ground, he said.
“Then, two guys came out, approached the vehicle and shot for almost 10 seconds before returning to their SUVs and fleeing,” he said. “The woman in the back started screaming. She had two kids with her, I think.”
The plumbing shop owner estimated the car was about 30 feet from the SUVs when the guards fired the fatal shots.
Witnesses said the driver was shot in the face and head and that she and the front-seat passenger were killed.
Marks left by the dragging radiator indicated that the car traveled about 50 feet after the radiator had been shot out.
A traffic officer stationed nearby, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he heard gunfire and thought it was a battle between rival militias. He ran across the intersection and saw the Oldsmobile “completely destroyed by gunfire.”
“There was a young woman who was screaming, and a 10- to 12-year-old child,” he said.
The Associated Press identified the slain women as Marou Awanis, 48, and Geneva Jalal, 30. It quoted Awanis’ sister-in-law, Anahet Bougous, as saying Awanis used her car as a taxi service to raise money for her family.
Foreign security companies contracted by the State Department, including Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp International, enjoy immunity from prosecution in Iraq under an order issued by the former U.S. administrator in the country, L. Paul Bremer III.
At least three investigations have been launched in connection with last month’s Blackwater shooting, and the Iraqi-led inquiry concluded Sunday that the shooting was unwarranted and the guards involved should be prosecuted in Iraq.
Some media reports indicated the government planned to demand $8 million in compensation for each of the families of the victims in the shooting. Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said nothing had been decided and that money was not the issue.
“It is not a matter of compensation but rather the penalties that this company must pay for violating the law and human rights,” he told Al Arabiya TV.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that he was not aware of the U.S. having received any demand for payment.
Witnesses to the Blackwater shooting have contradicted the guards’ statements that they opened fire after coming under attack at a crowded traffic circle in west Baghdad.
There are more than 40 private security companies, including Iraqi firms, operating in the country.
Some travel in sedans or other ordinary vehicles with their weapons hidden from view. But many, especially those guarding diplomats, travel in convoys of SUVs that move at high speeds with gunmen in body armor aiming weapons out the windows.
Iraqis have long accused high-profile companies of routinely hitting vehicles with their SUVs to push them aside, or shooting randomly to clear the roads. Given the companies’ secretive nature -- they do not identify their clients, they travel in unmarked vehicles, and they keep moving after such incidents -- they rarely are held accountable for deaths, injuries or damage.
“The message we are getting is basically, ‘Protect officials at any cost and to hell with ordinary citizens,’ ” said Ali Khalaf, a traffic policeman who witnessed the Blackwater shooting.
Times staff writers Said Rifai, Saif Hameed and Usama Redha in Baghdad and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.