Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Wednesday demanded that the U.S. Embassy here replace the private security company Blackwater USA because of its involvement in a weekend shooting incident that reportedly left 11 Iraqis dead.
Embassy officials, who are guarded by Blackwater personnel when they venture out of the heavily protected Green Zone, rebuffed the suggestion, saying Blackwater’s fate would be resolved only after an investigation was completed.
“We are waiting for the results of the investigation before taking any action,” said embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo.
At a news conference, an angry Maliki said North Carolina-based Blackwater, which has nearly 1,000 employees in Iraq, was also responsible for six similar shootings since being hired by the U.S. State Department to guard its diplomats after the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
“This crime has inflamed contempt, hatred and anger both from the government and the Iraqi public,” Maliki said. “Hence, it is important that this company’s activities be frozen and the American Embassy invest in the services of another one.”
Maliki reiterated that a preliminary investigation by the Iraqi government found that a Blackwater security detail had fired without provocation Sunday at a traffic circle in Baghdad’s Mansour district. As of Wednesday, 11 Iraqi citizens had died as a result of the shooting, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said.
“This company should be punished,” Maliki said. “We are not going to allow it to kill Iraqis in cold blood.”
Blackwater and American officials have disputed the Iraqi findings concerning Sunday’s shooting, which occurred while Blackwater guards were escorting a State Department motorcade. “The [guards’] convoy came under attack, and there was defensive fire as a result of that,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee, which is receiving assistance from the American and Iraqi militaries, will address the legal status of foreign private security contractors, who the U.S. says have immunity from Iraqi courts based on a 2004 decree issued by L. Paul Bremer III, the administrator of the former U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
The embassy Wednesday continued to bar U.S. diplomats and other civilian government personnel from undertaking ground travel out of the Green Zone, also called the International Zone, which is headquarters to the Iraqi government and the diplomatic community. The order was issued Tuesday partly out of fear of attacks against Americans by irate Iraqis who perceive foreign private security guards as being unaccountable for the killing of Iraqis.
“Yesterday and today there has been no movement out of the Baghdad zone,” embassy spokeswoman Nantongo said. “All chiefs of mission are restricted to the International Zone.”
Nantongo said the freeze on ground travel had already had a significant impact and would be reviewed daily while broader questions about the role and legal status of foreign security contractors are being resolved.
“We are working very closely with our Iraqi counterparts to find a solution to this problem, which has come up in the past,” Nantongo said. “We hope in the near future we will come up with a framework that works for everybody.”
Blackwater guards involved in Sunday’s shooting were cooperating with the investigation and had not left the country, she added. In December, after the shooting of a bodyguard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Blackwater employee allegedly involved was transported from Iraq by the company. He lives in the U.S. and has not been charged with any crime, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The embassy has declined to provide details of the lethal incident Sunday, which it said happened after a car bombing that occurred while two security convoys provided protection for U.S. diplomats at a meeting in the Mansour district. One convoy made it to the site, and the other came under fire, Nantongo said.
Two American diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity have told The Times that the State Department had failed to take Blackwater to task in past cases in which Iraqi civilians were shot. The diplomats complained that the State Department’s security office in Baghdad had often failed to scrutinize Blackwater’s actions.
In the eyes of many Iraqis, Blackwater has come to epitomize reckless behavior on the part of foreign private security contractors. More than 20,000 private guards are believed to be in Iraq, providing protection for diplomats, other civilian government employees and a wide array of contractors. Four Blackwater employees were killed by a mob in the western Iraqi city of Fallouja in 2004, leading to a U.S. military offensive there.
Private security contractors are also beginning to draw criticism from Congress. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has announced plans to hold hearings on Blackwater and the Bush administration’s use of private security contractors in war zones.
Waxman said the hearings would probe the U.S. government’s “excessive reliance” on such contractors.
He also has accused a top State Department official of blocking investigations of fraud and waste, including a Justice Department inquiry of charges that a firm identified as Blackwater may have smuggled weapons into Iraq.
In other developments Wednesday, a U.S. soldier died west of Baghdad in combat, another was shot in south Baghdad, and a third died in a noncombat incident in the northern province of Salahuddin, the military said. The deaths brought to 3,791 the number of Americans killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.
An Iraqi policeman was shot to death in the southern port of Basra. Witnesses said an aide to prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was wounded and a colleague killed in the city, where British forces withdrew their troops to a nearby airport this month.
Iraqi authorities also scrambled Wednesday to contain an oil spill after a pipeline blast near the oil refinery town of Baiji the previous day leaked pollutants into the Tigris River. A radio announcement in Baghdad warned people to store potable water.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Wail Alhafith, Saif Hameed and Said Rifai in Baghdad and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.