By Joshua Partlow and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
BAGHDAD, Sept. 17 -- The Iraqi government on Monday said it had revoked the license of Blackwater USA, an American security company involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed at least nine people, raising questions over which nation should regulate tens of thousands of civilian hired guns operating in Iraq.
The Iraqi government's announcement was its most public assertion to date of its right to take action against foreign security companies when a suspected crime has been committed.
Several violent episodes involving Blackwater have infuriated Iraqi officials. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the decision meant Blackwater "cannot work in Iraq any longer."
"Blackwater has made many mistakes resulting in other deaths, but this is the last and the biggest mistake. This is unjustified," Khalaf said. "Security contracts do not allow them to shoot people randomly. They are here to protect personnel, not shoot people without reason."
Martin L. Strong, a Blackwater vice president, said that the company's guards had responded appropriately to an ambush and that the company had received "no official indication" of Iraqi action against Blackwater.
Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq. The company has a high profile because it guards U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and other diplomats in the country. The company's black SUVs and agile, armed "Little Bird" helicopters escort diplomatic convoys throughout Baghdad.
Blackwater obtained a one-year operating license from the Interior Ministry in 2005, according to a scanned copy of the document provided by the company. After The Washington Post reported in June that the company was effectively operating outside of Iraqi law, Blackwater approached the Private Security Company Association of Iraq to request assistance to obtain a license, according to the trade group.
"We have a license renewal in process with the Ministry of Interior," Strong said.
The shooting started at noon on Sunday when a car bomb exploded near a State Department motorcade traveling through the western Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad near Nisoor Square, U.S. officials said. Following the explosion, Blackwater employees guarding the diplomats exchanged fire with armed attackers, Blackwater and U.S. officials said.
The subsequent battle killed at least nine people and wounded 14, Iraqi police and hospital workers said. Khalaf put the death toll at 11.
"We were shocked when we saw these fighters getting out of their SUVs and shooting randomly at people," said Sgt. Mohammed Juwad Hussein, an Iraqi army soldier who said he was manning a checkpoint in Baghdad near the scene of the fighting. "We didn't know who they were targeting or who they wanted to shoot."
Strong described the incident as an ambush because after the explosion there was small-arms fire "from close to 360 degrees around the motorcade."
Normally, he said, the procedure is to try to get out of the ambush zone, but in this case one of the Blackwater vehicles was disabled by gunfire.
Under such circumstances, Blackwater personnel are authorized to use "aimed fire" directed only at people with weapons. "If there is an extraction of our people, they can return fire to defend themselves," Strong said. He said no Blackwater employees were wounded and all escaped.
Blackwater is conducting its own investigation of the event, he said, and would cooperate with the State Department's inquiry. He said that in the past week, one of Blackwater's helicopters had been shot down and at least two other attacks on convoys had taken place.
U.S. Embassy officials would not speculate on how the Iraqi government's decision might affect their work with Blackwater. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to apologize about the episode and promised to investigate, Maliki's office said in a statement.
Rice also expressed her regret over the death of innocent civilians in the incident, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
The incident highlighted the murky legal space that private foreign security contractors occupy in Iraq. Some security experts said it is unlikely that the Iraqi government could expel Blackwater because its contract is through the State Department.
A regulation known as Order 17, which was established under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority headed by L. Paul Bremer and is still in effect, granted American private security contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Pentagon officials have said that at least 20,000 private security guards operate in Iraq. The International Contractors Association, a private trade group, said recently that the number could be as high as 50,000 and includes guards from dozens of countries, including thousands of Iraqis employed by foreign companies.
Another memorandum by the now-disbanded occupation authority requires private security companies to register for a license with the Interior Ministry, but some of the companies in Iraq operate without doing so. A June 2004 letter from the occupation authority to private security companies says the companies "will not operate without appropriate licenses" from the Iraqi government.
"I think the bottom line is that MOI does have the right -- if not the ability -- to limit Blackwater operations," said one Western official familiar with the Ministry of Interior who was not authorized to speak publicly.
In the past seven months, the Iraqi government has suspended the licenses of two private security companies but reinstated them after a review, said Lawrence T. Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq.
The occupation authority permitted security contractors to use deadly force in cases of self-defense and specified that they should make "every effort to avoid civilian casualties," "fire only aimed shots" and take "due regard for the safety of innocent bystanders."
The speeding convoys and gun-toting contractors patrolling the streets anger many Iraqis, who say they are unaccountable mercenaries with little respect for Iraqi civilians.
Blackwater in particular has come under intense scrutiny. In May, Blackwater guards were involved in shooting incidents on consecutive days in Baghdad. One of the incidents, which took place in front of the Interior Ministry, led to an armed confrontation between the Blackwater guards and Interior Ministry commandos who converged on the scene.
The tense standoff ended after State Department officials and U.S. troops intervened. The State Department said it planned to investigate but no results of that investigation have been released. A day earlier, a Blackwater team reportedly came under attack, triggering a furious gun battle involving the security guards, U.S. troops and Apache attack helicopters in Baghdad's municipal center.
Before Sunday's shootings, Interior Ministry officials said they had received reports of at least a half-dozen incidents in which Blackwater guards allegedly shot civilians, far more than any other company. But the officials said they were hamstrung by the immunity granted under Order 17.
"I would say that Iraqi officials are no different than other Iraqi citizens: They can't stand the Western security companies which are really aggressive, which would include Blackwater," said a second Western official knowledgeable about the Interior Ministry and who also insisted on anonymity. "Blackwater is particularly egregious, but I guess they've been told to use those procedures by the U.S. Embassy. They're not rogue elements."
U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), have pushed for more scrutiny over security contractors in Iraq. Price has proposed legislation that would make all contractors, whether they work for the State Department or the Defense Department, to be subject to prosecution under U.S. law.
"There is no question that the lack of transparency and accountability for security contractor operations, particularly the lack of legal options for prosecuting egregious misconduct, have significantly damaged our efforts in Iraq and put our troops at greater risk," Price said.
Pincus reported from Washington. Staff writers Steve Fainaru in El Cerrito, Calif., Megan Greenwell and special correspondent Salih Dehema in Baghdad, and staff writers Dana Hedgpeth and Robin Wright and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.