Blackwater Worldwide, the security firm accused of using excessive deadly force while protecting U.S. diplomats in Baghdad, would be barred from future work in Iraq under a decision by Baghdad officials to pull the firm’s security license.
“We have been informed that Blackwater’s private security company operating license will not be granted,” a U.S. Embassy official said Thursday. “We don’t have specifics about dates. We are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision.”
The North Carolina-based firm has about 1,000 personnel in Iraq to guard State Department officials. But Blackwater security guards have been accused of being trigger-happy, most notably in a 2007 incident in which they killed at least 17 Iraqis with machine-gun fire and grenades while protecting a State Department motorcade.
At the time, the Iraqi government demanded that Blackwater be banned, but backed down when the U.S. Embassy approved the firm’s resumption of work activities.
Until the implementation of a joint security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. this month, private security firms were granted immunity from Iraqi criminal prosecution. Now, however, the companies lack immunity, and the Iraqi government has the authority to bar firms from operating in the country.
The Iraqi government could still rescind its new decision, and the overall status of independent security contractors in Iraq remains unclear.
Longtime observers said the matter was probably still under negotiation between the Iraqi and U.S. governments.
Anne E. Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said the company had yet to be officially informed of the decision.
“Blackwater followed the proper procedures to apply for and secure operating licenses in Iraq. We have received no official communications from the government of Iraq or our customer on the status of those applications or the future of our work in Iraq,” Tyrrell said.
“Blackwater has always said that we will continue the important work of protecting U.S. government officials in Iraq for as long as our customer asks us to do so,” Tyrrell said.
The announcement comes at a time when violence has dropped significantly across Iraq, but also as prosecutors in the U.S. prepare to try five former Blackwater guards on manslaughter and weapons charges stemming from the Sept. 16, 2007, slayings.
Blackwater’s reputation is extremely poor among Iraqis. At the same time, many of the private security firms that provide protection for a growing number of infrastructure projects here have worked to strengthen ties with the Iraqi government.
Lawrence T. Peter, head of the Private Security Co. Assn. of Iraq, said that in January 2007, the attack rate on convoys protected by private security firms was one in five. In December 2008, that rate plummeted to roughly one in 500.
“We’ve not lost a private security operator to hostile action for eight or nine months now,” Peter said. “Compare that to the past, when we would lose several a week, if not more.”
News, observations and links about the Middle East by Times correspondents are available online.