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Blackwater needed, Iraqi official says

Times Staff Writer

An Iraqi official conceded Sunday that expelling a private U.S. firm accused in the deaths of at least 11 Iraqi civilians would leave a “security vacuum” and said the two countries would look at ways to better regulate companies that protect Western personnel and facilities in Iraq.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission was expected to hold its first meeting within days, the American Embassy said.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki demanded Wednesday that the embassy find a replacement for Blackwater USA and that the North Carolina-based company’s activities in Iraq be frozen after Blackwater guards were involved in the lethal shooting Sept. 16 in Baghdad. U.S. officials asked him to wait for the results of a joint investigation.

A spokesman for Iraqi security efforts in the capital acknowledged Sunday that Blackwater was one of the main companies protecting foreign embassies and said it was not feasible to expel the firm, which has about 1,000 employees in Iraq.

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“If we drive out this company immediately, there will be a security vacuum that would force us to pull troops out of the field to protect these institutes,” Tahseen Sheikhly said. “That would cause a big imbalance in the security situation.”

Blackwater guards were back on the streets on a limited basis after the embassy eased a ban Friday on road travel by diplomatic employees outside the fortified Green Zone.

Security contractors, a growing presence on the world’s battlefields, perform functions that military personnel cannot or will not handle. In Iraq, scores of local and international companies protect Iraqi officials, foreign diplomats, humanitarian workers, journalists and others. They also guard embassies, reconstruction projects, military bases and supply convoys.

Iraqi officials, angered by what they described as an aggressive disregard for Iraqi lives, have long accused the companies of being a law unto themselves. A directive issued by U.S. occupation authorities in 2004 granted foreign security contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq, though cases can be brought under certain circumstances in a U.S. court. Sheikhly said Iraqi courts should be able to try any crime committed on Iraqi soil.

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The Blackwater shooting has further strained U.S.-Iraqi relations, which were already frayed by Washington’s frustration over the slow pace of Iraqi political reconciliation. Maliki is expected to discuss the shooting with President Bush on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings this week.

At least four inquiries have been launched into the incident, which occurred in west Baghdad’s Mansour district.

A preliminary investigation by Iraq’s Interior Ministry concluded that Blackwater guards fired on civilians without provocation. But the company has contended that its employees were ambushed by militants and responded appropriately.

The U.S. Embassy is conducting its own investigation and will report its findings to the U.S.-Iraqi commission, embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.

The 16-member commission also will look at ways to regulate the scores of private security companies, both foreign and Iraqi, that operate in the country. The panel will be chaired by the U.S. Charge d’Affaires Patricia A. Butenis and Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim Mifarji.

The U.S. side will include five embassy and three military representatives, Nantongo said. The Iraqi ministries of defense, interior and national security will also be represented.

Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Friday a Washington-based review of how U.S. officials are protected in Iraq. Details of how that inquiry will be conducted were being worked out, Nantongo said.

Nantongo rejected concerns that the separate inquiries signaled a lack of trust between the two sides: “Clearly, everybody takes this very, very seriously. I would think the more eyes and ears involved, the better.”

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In another matter causing friction between Washington and Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman challenged claims that an Iranian it had detained Thursday was a businessman in Iraq at the invitation of the government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani demanded the man’s release Saturday, saying he was part of an official delegation to the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya.

Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, the spokesman, said the man was a member of the elite Al Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who was smuggling bombs into Iraq, including armor-piercing rounds known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.

A U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded when an EFP hit their patrol in eastern Baghdad, the military said Sunday. At least 3,798 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the Iraq war, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.

Iranian officials Sunday denied the U.S. accusations against the detained man, whom they identified as Mahmoud Farhadi, head of the Kermanshah province customs office. “There is not even one single Iranian in Iraq who deserves the allegations,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, police in Baghdad found the bodies of 10 men shot execution style. Retired Iraqi Brig. Gen. Muthanna Abdul Razzaq was killed and another passenger injured when their car hit a roadside bomb in the New Baghdad neighborhood, police said. And Iraq’s minister of higher education, Abid Dyab Ajayli, survived a bombing that killed two bodyguards as he returned to Baghdad from Tikrit, a member of his security detail said.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran, along with special correspondents in Baghdad and Kirkuk, contributed to this report

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