The Iraqi government announced Monday it was ordering Blackwater USA, the security firm that protects U.S. diplomats, to leave the country after what it said was the fatal shooting of eight Iraqi civilians following a car bomb attack against a State Department convoy.
The order by the Interior Ministry, if carried out, would deal a severe blow to U.S. government operations in Iraq by stripping diplomats, engineers, reconstruction officials and others of their security protection.
The presence of so many visible, aggressive Western security contractors has angered many Iraqis, who consider them a mercenary force that runs roughshod over people in their own country.
Sunday’s shooting was the latest in a series of incidents in which Blackwater and other foreign contractors have been accused of shooting to death Iraqi citizens. None has faced charges or prosecution.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late Monday and the two agreed to conduct a “fair and transparent investigation” and hold any wrongdoers accountable, said Yassin Majid, an adviser to the prime minister. Rice was expected to visit the Mideast on Tuesday.
Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Rice “told the prime minister that we were investigating this incident and wanted to gain a full understanding of what happened.”
“She reiterated that the United States does everything it can to avoid such loss of life, in contrast to the enemies of the Iraqi people who deliberately target civilians,” Casey said.
Majid made no mention of the order to expel Blackwater, and it was unlikely the United States would agree to abandon a security company that plays such a critical role in American operations in Iraq.
The U.S. clearly hoped the Iraqis would be satisfied with an investigation, a finding of responsibility and compensation to the victims’ families — and not insist on expelling a company that the Americans cannot operate here without.
Details of Sunday’s incident were unclear.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said eight civilians were killed and 13 were wounded when contractors believed to be working for Blackwater USA opened fire on civilians in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Mansour in western Baghdad.
“We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory. We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities,” Khalaf said.
He said witness reports pointed to Blackwater involvement but added that the shooting was still under investigation. One witness, Hussein Abdul-Abbas, said the explosion was followed by about 20 minutes of heavy gunfire and “everybody in the street started to flee immediately.”
U.S. officials said the motorcade was traveling through Nisoor Square on the way back to the Green Zone when the car bomb exploded, followed by volleys of small-arms fire that disabled one of the vehicles but caused no American casualties.
Blackwater said the company had not been formally notified of any expulsion.
“Blackwater’s independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday,” spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said in a statement late Monday.
“The `civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire,” she said. “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.”
American officials refused to explain the legal authority under which Blackwater operates in Iraq or say whether the company was complying with the order. It also was unclear whether the contractors involved in the shooting were still in Iraq.
The incident drew attention to one of the controversial American practices of the war — the use of heavily armed private security contractors who Iraqis complain operate beyond the control of U.S. military and Iraqi law.
The events in Mansour also illustrate the challenge of trying to protect U.S. officials in a city where car bombs can explode at any time, and where gunmen blend in with the civilian population.
“The Blackwater guys are not fools. If they were gunning down people, it was because they felt it was the beginning of an ambush,” said Robert Young Pelton, an independent military analyst and author of the book “Licensed to Kill.”
“They’re famous for being very aggressive. They use their machine guns like car horns. But it’s not the goal to kill people.”
In one of the most horrific attacks of the war, four Blackwater employees were ambushed and killed in Fallujah in 2004 and their charred bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
But Iraqis have long complained about high-profile, heavily armed security vehicles careering through the streets, with guards pointing weapons at civilians and sometimes firing warning shots at anyone deemed too close. And Iraqi officials were quick to condemn the foreign guards.
Al-Maliki late Sunday condemned the shooting by a “foreign security company” and called it a “crime.”
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani described the shooting as “a crime about which we cannot be silent.”
“Everyone should understand that whoever wants good relations with Iraq should respect Iraqis,” al-Bolani told Al-Arabiya television. “We are implementing the law and abide by laws, and others should respect these laws and respect the sovereignty and independence of Iraqis in their country.”
Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi told Iraqi television that “those criminals” responsible for deaths “should be punished” and that the government would demand compensation for the victims’ families.
Despite threats of prosecution, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Alhurra television that contractors cannot be prosecuted by Iraqi courts because “some of them have immunity.”
In April, the Defense Department said about 129,000 contractors of many nationalities were operating in Iraq — nearly as many as the entire U.S. military force before this year’s troop buildup.
About 4,600 contractors are in combat roles, such as protecting supply convoys along Iraq’s dangerous, bomb-laden highways.
Blackwater, a secretive North Carolina-based company run by a former Navy SEAL, is among the biggest and best known security firms, with an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq and at least $800 million in government contracts.
In May 2007, a Blackwater employee shot and killed a civilian who was thought to be driving too close to a company security detail.
Last Christmas Eve, an inebriated Blackwater employee shot and killed a security guard for an Iraqi vice president, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. The contractor made his way to the U.S. Embassy where Blackwater officials arranged to have him flown home to the United States, according U.S. officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The contractor has been fired and Blackwater is cooperating with federal investigators, company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell has said.
AP correspondents Deborah Hastings in New York, Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.