Iraq unsafe for U.S. officials

US officials were barred on Wednesday from traveling by land outside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone amid fears of attacks after the alleged killing of civilians by private security firm Blackwater.

The suspension came as Washington grappled with ways to curb the damage from Sunday’s clash in which Blackwater guards escorting US embassy officials opened fire in a Baghdad neighborhood, killing 10 people and wounding 13.

Blackwater denies any wrongdoing but a top Iraqi judge has said the US firm, one of the largest private security operators in Iraq, could face trial.

“In light of a serious security incident involving a US embassy protective detail in… Baghdad, the embassy has suspended official US government civilian ground movements outside the (Green Zone) and throughout Iraq,” the embassy said in a notice to Americans, a copy of which was received by AFP.

“This suspension is in effect in order to assess mission security and procedures, as well as a possible increased threat to personnel traveling with security details outside the International Zone.”

Air travel is not affected by the ban and since most officials and diplomats in any case seldom venture outside the Green Zone unless by helicopter, the ban is expected mainly to affect those involved in construction projects.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on Tuesday that the cabinet had decided to investigate the operations of foreign and local security companies to determine whether they operate in “compliance with Iraqi laws.”

He said the cabinet had also backed the interior ministry’s decision on Monday to cancel Blackwater’s operating licence.

In an interview with CNN, however, Dabbagh said the government did not intend revoking Blackwater’s license indefinitely.

“We do need them to respect the law and the regulation here in Iraq,” he said.

US and Iraqi sources said the shooting erupted after a bomb exploded near a US diplomatic convoy, but a US government incident report said armed insurgents fired on the convoy and Blackwater guards responded.

“Blackwater’s independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday,” the North Carolina company said in a statement.

US legal experts said the contractors may be immune from prosecution under a measure conceived by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority not long after the March 2003 invasion.

The Pentagon said it was taking a hard look into the US military’s use of private security contractors in Iraq.

A spokesman for the US Central Command said 7,300 private security personnel were in Iraq under contract to the US Defence Department as of July 5. Overall, there were 137,000 people in Iraq on Defense Department contracts.

Those figures do not include private security personnel or others under contract to the State Department — like the Blackwater contractors in the shooting — or other US agencies.

And, US officials said, it was unclear whether — or if — any US nationals involved would be tried under US or Iraqi law over the incident, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has angrily branded a “criminal” act.

“That bit of it will come at the very end” of a probe into what happened, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said one day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Maliki to ease his concerns.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, met the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Baghdad and was briefed about the security situation there on Tuesday.

Petraeus and Crocker gave “their assessment of the security situation and the progress being made by the coalition and Iraqi authorities in Iraq,” a spokesman for Brown told AFP.