Iraq tells Blackwater to get out

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 ā€” 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 ā€” 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 ā€” 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.

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AP correspondents Deborah Hastings in New York, Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Comments

  1. adamrussell

    The consequences for blackwater and for US regular servicemen would be severe were blackwater to ignore the ‘rightful’ Iraqi government’s authority. Even Bush could not be that stupid. We may have the means to destroy Iraq, but even with Iraqi cooperation we do not have the means to keep the peace. And without cooperation it can only get worse.

  2. SEAL

    Pablo: As created, the military was completely self sufficient. We cooked and served our own food, washed our own clothes, cleaned, repaired and built everything we needed. We had the manpower to do this because we had the draft that mandated that every american male would serve a minimum of two years in one of the service branches unless they could get deffered. That was random selection. You could choose the branch you wanted by joining but that meant serving four years instead of the two. However, by volunteering you qualified for any of the military’s schools, many, such as electronics and pipe-fitters or boiler techs, which were superior to civillian schools and when you came out of the service you were in demand for well paying jobs due to the training and experience.

    Changing to an all volunteer military reduced the number of enlisted military personnnel and created the opportunity for get rich at the taxpayers expense corporations to contract the basic support services for the military. This only added to the MIC and provided them with the income during peace time that they lost by our not needing near as many weapons, vehicles, etc.

    Once started, the civillian support was expanded over time until, with a new long and protrated war, they have become a monster. They had added/included “security” in their sevices. Enter Blackwater, etc. The fact is, that there are more civilian pesonnel in Iraq than actual military and if you took away any one divison of them we could not maintain the war. I don’t know how many Blackwater people are actually in Iraq but the last I heard, about a year ago, the number of private security personnel was thought to be close to 120,000 according to the military people I talked to that were there. Our troop level at that time was 130,000.

    Blackwater uniforms are almost identical to our regular military, therefore, the locals could not distiguish between them and the real thing in the beginning. However, their behavior is quite different with very little responsibilitiy for their actions. Also, they earn about $500.00 a day (taxpayer’s money) in Iraq which doesn’t set too well with a marine making $250.00 a week who is totally responsible for his actions. And, fortunately, the Iraqis have learned to tell the two apart.

    The reality is that there are a hell of a lot of guys who come out of a war like Nam or Gulf war I and just can’t let it go. They got off on it. They come home qualified for nothing other waging war and killing the enemy. Most wind up working for security companies and just above minimum wage. After being fired a few times (usually for excessive force) they hear about Blackwater and there you have the perfect Blackwater employee. In their 20s or 30s fully trained and ready to go (most in their 40s or 50s now and in command or training type positions). All they had to do was obey orders. Add a few civilian younger skinhead racially predjudiced gung-ho nut jobs, some unhappy military guys who heard about Blackwater while in the sevice and went to them when their enlistment was up for the higher pay and greater freedom to bash heads and empty a clip, some freelance mercs, a few nazi mentality foreign trained ex-military types, and you have the entire organization. Essentially, a civilian army of icthy triggers for hire.

    It isn’t that our military could not provide all the sevices like security for dignataries, it’s that the dynamic has been changed to provide more money for the MIC to create a protective military force loyal to their money. I.e., Cheney’s no bid contracts for his former company.

    The plain fact with the current situation is that Blackwater cannot leave Iraq regadless of what the Iraq government wants if we are to remain there. We cannot do the job we are doing without them. It will be interesting to see what happens now. The Blackwater mercs have immunity so they cannot be punished. But the Iraqi government must save face.

    The most interesting comment from them, so far, is they are most concerned with the embarrasment to their government and ours about the killing of 20 civilians. No concern for those killed. That tells us what we are dealing with in Iraq. Human life has little value for them. What was it we are fighting for? Oh, yeah. Now, I remember. Democracy which values equality of human treatment and life.

  3. SEAL

    Here is something I feel compelled to point out:

    During wars like WWII, Vietnam, and Korea, we drated men, put them through 9 weeks of boot camp, added 6-12 weeks of additional training and sent them to the line combat ready. But in Iraq we have not been able to combat train an Iraqi Army in 4 years?

  4. Carl Nemo

    A commentator said that Iraq’s cancellation has no legal merit since the contract is between Blackwater, the U.S. military and the State Department. He said it’s a binding contract and cannot be abbrogated by the Iraqi interior minister simply pulling their license to operate.

    If they are forced to leave then no doubt the U.S. taxpayer will be fulfilling Blackwater’s contract or face suit in federal court. I suspect that’s why Condi made an immediate call to Maliki to give him his marching orders. At this time there is plans to have an investigation, but I suspect Blackwater will be cleared of all liability. No matter what it seems that Blackwater and Bushco will win, while “we the people” always lose when it comes to this Iraqi shakedown of the U.S. taxpayer…!

    Carl Nemo **==