By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
BAGHDAD, Sept. 18 -- The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday suspended all ground travel for its diplomats across Iraq following a deadly shootout over the weekend involving its private security guards from Blackwater USA.
The decision to ban U.S. government officials' movement in Iraq outside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone came as the Iraqi government vowed to challenge the immunity of private security contractors from prosecution under Iraqi law and review the operations of all such companies in Iraq.
The decision effectively halted Blackwater's operations because a main task of the company is to escort diplomats, including Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Embassy officials did not say whether they were seeking a replacement security company, but any extended suspension of travel could impair diplomats' work in Iraq, limiting their scope of direct influence to the walled Green Zone.
The crisis began Sunday when Blackwater employees guarding a U.S. State Department motorcade opened fire in downtown Baghdad, killing at least nine people and as many as 28, according to Iraqi officials. Several witnesses said in interviews Tuesday that Blackwater guards fired without provocation and indiscriminately.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said Monday that it had revoked Blackwater's license and launched an investigation, with which U.S. officials said they would cooperate. Blackwater officials have said the employees acted "lawfully and appropriately" in self-defense.
The issue has raised fundamental questions over whether Iraq has the ability to regulate the use of force within its borders or whether U.S. officials can supersede that authority.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview that civilian hired guns "should not have immunity" from Iraqi law. "We are a sovereign country and there is no country in the world where security companies could move so freely without being subjected to local laws."
An order created during the tenure of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, and still in effect, gives immunity to civilian private contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
The facts of Sunday's violence remain in dispute. Blackwater says the convoy through the Mansour district of western Baghdad came under attack by "armed enemies," prompting its employees to defend themselves. U.S. officials said an initial car bomb explosion near the convoy triggered the response.
But five witnesses at the scene of the shootout, including one man who was shot in his car, said in interviews that Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation and killed innocent civilians.
Around the traffic circle at Nisoor Square on Tuesday, bullet holes pocked lampposts, traffic lights and the concrete curbs painted yellow and white. The remains of a charred sedan lay on the sidewalk.
Traffic police officer Sarhan Dhia, 34, said he was standing under the Iraqi flags next to his white guard shack along the traffic circle when he saw the convoy of at least four armored vehicles approach, traveling against the flow of traffic. He said he jumped out into an intersecting street to prevent cars from entering the circle while the convoy passed. The next thing he knew, he said, gunfire erupted.
"There was no bombing," he said. "They were shooting everywhere."
A man in a white sedan near Dhia was shot in the head, he recalled.
"His mother was sitting right next to him. I heard her screaming. She was hugging her son and screaming," he said.
After the driver had been shot, the car kept rolling forward, he said. "We tried to stop the car and save it. He was dead but the car was heading towards them," he recalled. "Within seconds they opened fire on the woman." The car burst into flames and the woman died, he said.
Taxi driver Sami Hawas Hamoud, 42, was returning home from a gas station with his 13-year-old son, Izzedine, when they came upon the traffic circle. Gunmen in the last vehicle in the convoy opened fire inexplicably on the cars waiting in his lane, he said. Bullets strafed his Opel Omega. He was hit in the lower back and the left thigh. He said he stumbled out of the car and fell sprawling onto the pavement, blood spilling from his wounds.
"I thought, 'I'm done. I'm dead.' I saw blood all over," he recalled, reclining on a bed in Yarmouk Hospital, his bandages in plain view. "There were bodies all over the street. Whenever I turned my head, I would see bodies."
"I saw that he was lying down on the ground and I thought he was killed," Izzedine said by his father's bedside.
Iraqi police reported initially that at least nine people died in the shooting. Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said 23 people were killed and 35 were injured. A senior Iraqi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qasim Ata' Zahil, said Tuesday that the toll had risen to 28.
The Blackwater guards "opened fire on the citizens passing by in the street. And according to the testimony of the citizens, the shooting was random," Zahil said.
In violence on Tuesday, four car bombs in Baghdad killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 35, police said. The deadliest attack, which killed nine people, occurred near the Health Ministry and the city's morgue, police said.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed in Diyala province when a bomb exploded near their patrol. Three others were wounded in the attack. A fourth U.S. soldier died in Nineveh province during a vehicle accident that the military said was not related to combat.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.