By Steve Fainaru and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Employees of Blackwater USA, a private security firm under contract to the State Department, opened fire on the streets of Baghdad twice in two days last week, and one of the incidents provoked a standoff between the security contractors and Iraqi forces, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
A Blackwater guard shot and killed an Iraqi driver Thursday near the Interior Ministry, according to three U.S. officials and one Iraqi official who were briefed on the incident but spoke on condition of anonymity because of a pending investigation. On Wednesday, a Blackwater-protected convoy was ambushed in downtown Baghdad, triggering a furious battle in which the security contractors, U.S. and Iraqi troops and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters were firing in a congested area.
Blackwater confirmed that its employees were involved in two shootings but could neither confirm nor deny that there had been any casualties, according to a company official who declined to be identified because of the firm's policy of not addressing incidents publicly.
Blackwater's security consulting division holds at least $109 million worth of State Department contracts in Iraq, and its employees operate in a perilous environment that sometimes requires the use of deadly force. But last week's incidents underscored how deeply these hired guns have been drawn into the war, their murky legal status and the grave consequences that can ensue when they take aggressive action.
Matthew Degn, a senior American civilian adviser to the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate, described the ministry as "a powder keg" after the Iraqi driver was shot Thursday, with anger at Blackwater spilling over to other Americans working in the building.
Degn said he was concerned the incident "could undermine a lot of the cordial relationships that have been built up over the past four years. There's a lot of angry people up here right now."
Details about that incident remained sketchy. The Blackwater guards said the victim drove too close to their convoy and drew fire, according to the three American officials. Concerned about a possible car bomb or other threat, the guards said they tried to wave off the vehicle, shouted, fired a warning shot into the radiator, then shot into the windshield when the driver failed to pull back, the officials said. Such steps are recommended under the rules for the use of force by contractors in Iraq specified in Memorandum 17, a set of guidelines adopted in 2004 by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation government, and still in effect.
The Iraqi official said the driver encountered the Blackwater convoy after leaving a gas station just outside the Interior Ministry. Some witnesses said the shooting was unprovoked, the official said. He said the driver had wounds in his shoulder, chest and head.
The Blackwater employees refused to divulge their names or details of the incident to Iraqi authorities, according to two of the U.S. officials and the Iraqi official. The officials described a tense standoff that ensued between the Blackwater guards and Interior Ministry forces -- both sides armed with assault rifles -- until a passing U.S. military convoy intervened.
Anne Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said the company did not discuss specific incidents. In a statement via e-mail, she wrote: "Blackwater investigates any reports of hostile action in Iraq. Per the terms of our US Government contracts, as a matter of routine, Blackwater is required to file after action reports on any such incidents."
Dan Sreebny, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad, said: "The security contractors are an important part of our embassy here. We expect all people within the mission to conform to the rules and procedures of professional behavior. We take allegations of misbehavior very seriously, and when there are such allegations we investigate thoroughly."
Blackwater, which is headquartered in Moyock, N.C., gained national attention in March 2004, when a mob killed four of its employees in the city of Fallujah and hung their charred corpses from a bridge. Blackwater is now the most prominent of dozens of security companies working in Iraq, with hundreds of guards and a fleet of armored vehicles and helicopters.
The Interior Ministry, which regulates security companies for the Iraqi government, has received four previous complaints of shooting incidents involving Blackwater in the past two years, according to Hussein Kamal, undersecretary for intelligence affairs. But in an interview before last week's shootings, Kamal said Iraqi authorities have been hampered by a Coalition Provisional Authority order granting contractors immunity from the Iraqi legal process.
Interior Ministry officials said Blackwater has not applied to operate as a private security company in Iraq. That process has been completed by several security firms with U.S. government contracts, including ArmorGroup International and Aegis Defense Services, two British companies.
Tyrrell wrote that Blackwater is "working lawfully in Iraq," adding, "We comply with all contractual obligations, including obtaining all appropriate registrations in the very dynamic environment in Iraq whose requirements for registration and licensing are always evolving."
The Pentagon and company representatives estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 armed security contractors work in Iraq, although there are no official figures and some estimates run much higher. Security contractors are not counted as part of the coalition forces and are prohibited from taking part in offensive operations. But their convoys are often attacked, drawing guards into firefights and ground combat.
The Blackwater convoy involved in the Wednesday incident was ambushed at 11 a.m., according to the U.S. military, while escorting State Department employees participating in the reconstruction effort. U.S. officials and bystanders said the Blackwater vehicles were struck by a well-coordinated attack, with insurgents unleashing a barrage of small-arms fire from surrounding rooftops.
A statement released by the military said that the "security unit" requested assistance and that Apache helicopters attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, arrived before ground forces.
Mohammed Mahdi, 37, an employee at a veterinary drugstore, said the combined American forces unleashed a fury of gunfire near the Amanat, the municipal headquarters located in the heart of downtown Baghdad. Before taking cover in his store, Mahdi said, he saw two people killed and one wounded near the city's legal registry.
A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Blackwater contractors "did their job," enabling the State Department employees to be extracted without injuries. The U.S. military said no American soldiers were killed or wounded during the attack.
Mahdi said that the battle lasted for nearly an hour and that when he emerged he saw four mini-buses, a taxi and an Opel sedan containing dead and wounded. He said that he saw "at least four or five" people "who were certainly dead" but that he did not know how the people were killed, who killed them or whether they were civilians or combatants.
"There were people yelling: 'There's someone dead over here! Come!' " he said. "And another saying: 'There's someone wounded over here. Come and get them.' "
Izzi reported from Baghdad. Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Baghdad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.