President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki met Tuesday to discuss broad issues related to the war, but were forced to confront the latest irritant in their relationship: a deadly shooting last week involving employees of Blackwater USA, a U.S. security firm protecting American diplomats.
The talks between the two leaders took place during the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and came as the Iraqi Interior Ministry prepared legislation that would strip local and foreign security companies of immunity from prosecution.
During a 75-minute meeting Tuesday in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Bush and Maliki talked gingerly around the sensitive question of the role of private security companies in Iraq, according to a description by U.S. officials. A spokesman for Maliki, confirming the conversation, said the Iraqi leader cautioned against U.S. violations of Iraqi sovereignty.
“The forces operating in Iraq, including the security companies, should respect the sovereignty of Iraq,” Maliki’s spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said by telephone in New York. “This is an issue which must be addressed in order to make the long-term relations between the U.S. and Iraq workable.”
The controversy stemmed from the shooting deaths of at least 11 Iraqis in Baghdad on Sept. 16, in which Blackwater employees were accused of firing without provocation. Bush had said last week that he would discuss the matter with Maliki when the two attended the United Nations meeting.
U.S. officials said the exchange was neither lengthy nor confrontational. Instead, there was “a general discussion of the importance of recognition of Iraqi sovereignty,” said Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Maliki discussed the incident in greater detail after the formal meeting. The two countries are seeking better cooperation and coordination in security operations, while taking into consideration Iraqi sovereignty and the needs of protecting State Department personnel, Hadley said.
Contractors were granted immunity by an order signed by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III on June 27, 2004, the day before he transferred sovereignty to Iraqis.
Bush also pressed Iraqi officials to make progress on a package of legislative measures intended to promote reconciliation across Iraq’s sectarian, ethnic and political divides. Passage of the provisions is among the benchmarks set by the Bush administration as prerequisites for a future troop pullout.
“The political parties in Iraq must understand the importance of getting these laws passed,” Bush said during a photo session at the end of the meeting.
Maliki said he had emphasized that “the future of Iraq goes through the gates of national reconciliations, of political agreements.”
In Iraq, U.S. officials rely heavily on Blackwater, a North Carolina company, and other private security firms to protect them when they travel outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
A preliminary investigation of the incident by the Interior Ministry concluded that Blackwater guards fired without provocation.
Blackwater has said that its guards were ambushed and responded appropriately to defend a U.S. convoy they were escorting through Baghdad.
Maliki, who initially demanded that the U.S. Embassy replace Blackwater, has agreed to wait for the recommendations of a U.S.-Iraqi commission before acting. Dabbagh, his spokesman, said Tuesday that no laws would be approved by the Cabinet before the inquiry ended.
Separately, Rice has ordered an internal U.S. review of State Department security.
Frustration has been building in Iraq over aggressive tactics used by some security firms. Iraqi officials accuse the companies of taking advantage of Bremer’s immunity directive.
The text of the decree, known as Order 17, said its provisions were to remain in force “until the departure of the final element of the MNF [multinational forces] . . . unless rescinded or amended by legislation duly enacted and having the force of law.”
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Tuesday that a draft measure has been drawn up to bring the companies under Iraqi jurisdiction.
“These firms will be under the grip of Iraqi law . . . and will be punished decisively for every breach,” Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said at a news conference.
Iraqi officials also have complained about the detention by U.S. forces of an Iranian in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya in northern Iraq on Thursday.
The U.S. military accused the Iranian of smuggling weapons and of facilitating training for terrorists on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has said the man was part of a business delegation invited by local authorities.
“We demand that the Americans release the prisoner,” Talabani told reporters Tuesday before boarding a flight to New York.
U.S. soldier killed
In other developments, a U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday in an explosion in Diyala province, the military said. At least 3,800 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.
An insurgent umbrella group led by Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility Tuesday for a suicide attack that killed at least 25 people and injured 40 at a unity meeting of Sunni and Shiite Muslims the previous day in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala. The Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement posted on the Internet that a member of its “martyrdom squad” carried out the attack.
In the southern city of Basra, a suicide car bomber struck a police station, killing at least three officers and wounding more than 20 people, police and hospital officials said.
Such attacks are rare in the mostly Shiite city. But security concerns have mounted since British forces withdrew to an air base on the outskirts of the oil hub. Iraqi police blamed the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, but the city has also seen clashes between Shiite militias.
Gerstenzang reported from New York and Zavis from Baghdad. Special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra and Sulaymaniya contributed to this report.