American officials scrambled to head off a potential crisis Monday after irate Iraqi authorities canceled the license of the controversial American security firm Blackwater USA, whose guards were accused of shooting to death eight civilians while protecting a U.S. State Department motorcade.
The swift response to Sunday’s deaths marked Iraq’s boldest step to assert itself against foreign security contractors who have long been accused of racing through Baghdad’s streets and firing without restraint at anyone they see as a threat. It also cast a focus on the continued lack of control by American officials over heavily armed private security contractors, at least 20,000 of whom supplement the U.S.-led military forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003.
The ouster of all Blackwater guards here could severely cripple security arrangements for U.S. diplomats and other workers who rely on private guards to protect them on the violent streets of Iraq.
But several contractors predicted Monday that it was unlikely the Iraqi government would carry through with the threat to expel Blackwater.
“For all intents and purposes they belong to the [U.S.] Department of State,” one contractor said of Blackwater employees, who have themselves often been the victims of violence, including the gruesome 2004 incident in Fallouja when four guards were killed and mutilated.
While many details of Sunday’s incident remained in dispute, the gravity of the situation was apparent in the reaction of top-level officials in Washington and Baghdad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Monday night to express regret over the shootings involving the North Carolina-based company that provides most of the security for U.S. Embassy personnel traveling in Iraq.
An embassy spokeswoman stressed that officials wanted to get to the bottom of the incident. “We take this very seriously and we are launching a full investigation in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
Iraq’s national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said the Iraqi government should use the incident to look into overhauling private security guards’ immunity from Iraqi courts, which was granted by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer III in 2003 and later extended ahead of Iraq’s return to sovereignty.
“This is a golden opportunity for the government of Iraq to radically review the CPA Order 17 and make the review part of the investigation process,” Rubaie said.
Iraqi Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, accused Blackwater of breaking the law Sunday.
“They committed a crime,” Khalaf said. “The judicial system will take action.”
It was not immediately clear, however, how Blackwater employees could be prosecuted because of the immunity provisions enacted during the American-led occupation.
Private security companies expert Peter W. Singer said the case posed a sticky dilemma for the Americans.
“If [Maliki] is already describing this as a crime . . . we have a very interesting bridge to cross,” said Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. “Do we turn over American citizens to an Iraqi judicial system that is inept, corrupt and now politicized?”
Failure to do so, he added, would undermine the legitimacy of a government the Bush administration is working feverishly to shore up.
The incident Sunday was the latest of many in which private security contractors employed by U.S.-led forces have shot and killed Iraqi civilians. No American security contractor has been prosecuted in the United States or Iraq. The current incident is the first in which the Iraqi government has challenged the United States over the blanket immunity for foreign private security contractors, who number anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000.
Khalaf said eight people were killed and 13 wounded when the security convoy came speeding by Nisoor Square at the edge of the Mansour district in western Baghdad. Two Iraqi witnesses said no one had attacked the convoy.
However, some local Iraqi television accounts reported an exchange of fire at the scene. The U.S. Embassy also said the convoy had come under fire.
“A car bomb went off near a location where U.S. Embassy officials were in a meeting,” Nantongo said. “Two U.S. Embassy support teams responded. One team made it to the scene quickly, and the other team came under fire.”
Blackwater officials insisted that the convoy had been attacked by gunmen and did not fire wildly at bystanders.
“The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire,” said spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. She said the company would cooperate with any investigation.
“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,” she said.
An industry official said the State Department position has long been that Blackwater does not need a license from the Iraqi government to protect American officials, since its contract is directly with U.S. authorities to provide diplomatic security. However, the company is registered with the Interior Ministry.
Several U.S. diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity said in interviews that past private security misdeeds had been swept under the rug.
“It’s one of the big holes we’ve had in our policy: the lack of control, the lack of supervision over the security force,” a U.S. diplomat told The Times on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. “No one took on the responsibility of policing these units, neither the military or the Regional Security Office [the embassy’s security department].
“So many people, not just the Blackwater people, are there in Baghdad unsupervised with basically diplomatic immunity,” he said.
A second diplomat also said, independently, that the Regional Security Office had not taken Blackwater to task when it came under suspicion.
“The message from the RSO was, I know you guys are good guys and would not do anything bad. It was carte blanche because you know you are going to be protected,” the second diplomat said.
The first diplomat was skeptical of official reports on fatal incidents. “The incident reports were a whitewash, and nobody did anything about it,” he said, adding that there have been a few cases where Blackwater and other companies have fired workers for killing civilians, but those same workers were back in Iraq with another company in a few months.
“It is a revolving door,” he said.
Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., was founded by a former Navy SEAL. It employs 982 people in Iraq, according to a U.S. congressional study released in July.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for whom Blackwater provides security, lauded the firm in his testimony to Congress last week on Iraq. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus also has praised private security firms as a vital partner in Iraq.
The killing of four Blackwater employees in March 2004 in Fallouja triggered the U.S. Marine crackdown on the Sunni Arab city that April. In the infamous incident, a mob attacked the quartet, burned the bodies and dragged them through the streets before two were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Among fellow security companies in Baghdad, Blackwater is often disliked and even feared.
“They are untouchable. They’ve shot up other private security contractors, Iraqi military, police and civilians,” said one security contractor, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One contractor described an incident three weeks ago in which a four-vehicle Blackwater convoy pushed through a crowded Baghdad street and pointed a gun at his team, even though they waved an American flag -- an indicator used by security contractors to identify themselves to one another.
There have been several fatal shootings involving Blackwater since late last year. On Christmas Eve, a Blackwater employee walking in the Green Zone stopped by an Iraqi checkpoint and, after an argument, fatally shot an Iraqi guard for Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, said an Iraqi official and a U.S. diplomat.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf said his government was still investigating the fatal shooting of an elderly man who was speeding by a Blackwater convoy earlier this year.
In other developments Monday, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad near the Shiite Muslim district of Sadr City, killing three people and wounding eight others, police said. A suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq leader was killed in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said, while the U.S. military said it killed seven insurgents and detained 31 others around central and northern Iraq.
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Paul Richter in Washing- ton, and Tina Susman, Saif Rashid, Wail Alhafith and special correspondent Usama Redha in Baghdad contributed to this report.