By Sudarsan Raghavan and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 23, 2007
BAGHDAD, Sept. 22 -- Senior Iraqi officials repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater USA's alleged involvement in the deaths of numerous Iraqis, but the Americans took little action to regulate the private security firm until 11 Iraqis were shot dead last Sunday, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Before that episode, U.S. officials were made aware in high-level meetings and formal memorandums of Blackwater's alleged transgressions. They included six violent incidents this year allegedly involving the North Carolina firm that left a total of 10 Iraqis dead, the officials said.
"There were no concrete results," Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy interior minister who oversees the private security industry on behalf of the Iraqi government, said in an interview Saturday.
The lack of a U.S. response underscores the powerlessness of Iraqi officials to control the tens of thousands of security contractors who operate under U.S.-drafted Iraqi regulations that shield them from Iraqi laws. It also raises questions about how seriously the United States will seek to regulate Blackwater, now the subject of at least three investigations by Iraqi and U.S. authorities. Blackwater, which operates under State Department authority, protects nearly all senior U.S. politicians and civilian officials here.
U.S. Embassy officials did not respond to several requests to describe what action, if any, was taken in response to the six incidents involving Blackwater. Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said the embassy always looks into anything "outside of normal operation procedures."
In the United States, Blackwater is facing a possible federal investigation over allegations that it illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq that later might have been sold on the black market. The accusation first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer. The company on Saturday denied the allegations, calling them "baseless."
"The company has no knowledge of any employee improperly exporting weapons," Anne Tyrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said in a statement.
In its probe, Iraq's Interior Ministry concluded that Blackwater fired without provocation into cars about noon last Sunday in Nisoor Square in the Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad, killing 11 and injuring 12. Blackwater has said that extremists ambushed guards protecting a State Department convoy and that they had to defend themselves.
Kamal indicated that Iraqi investigators had a videotape apparently showing Blackwater guards firing at civilians, but he declined to provide further details. On Friday, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the chief Interior Ministry spokesman, said the ministry would refer its findings to a court for possible criminal prosecution.
"It confirms there was no justification. Blackwater started shooting," Kamal said about the probe's conclusions. "This is a crime, which under Iraqi law, and even under American law, should be punished."
U.S. investigators have not publicly released any findings. U.S. Embassy officials have declined to comment on the probe and cautioned not to draw premature conclusions.
Matthew Degn, who served as a senior adviser to the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate until his tour in Iraq ended last month, said Kamal and other ministry officials became increasingly frustrated by their inability to persuade U.S. officials to regulate Blackwater as allegations against the company mounted.
Degn said Kamal sent a flurry of memos to company and U.S. officials in an effort to bring Blackwater into compliance. The Iraqis were concerned that the firm had refused to obtain a license to operate legally in Iraq, a process that required companies to provide sensitive personnel data and submit to weapons inspections. Blackwater also refused to answer any questions about the reported incidents.
Degn said the Iraqis were consistently rebuffed in their requests.
"Kamal went to State several times; he's the one who's been paying the price for this," Degn said. "We had numerous discussions over his frustrations with Blackwater, but every time he contacted the [U.S.] government, it went nowhere."
Degn said he became a close friend of Kamal's and shared the deputy minister's frustrations, even as he recognized the complexity of reconciling Blackwater's relationship with the Iraqis while trying to protect the State Department. Degn said Blackwater's reluctance to cooperate was understandable, given that the Iraqi Interior Ministry had been infiltrated by sectarian militia members.
Kamal said addressing Blackwater's alleged actions was also a matter of preserving Iraq's dignity and honor. Seated in his spacious office, he recalled an incident two months ago when Blackwater guards threw a water bottle at a traffic policeman. The officer was so furious that he submitted his resignation, but his superiors turned it down, Kamal said.
"This is a flagrant violation of the law," Kamal said. "This guy is an officer with a rank of a brigadier general. He was standing in the street doing his job, regulating traffic. He represents the state and the law, and yet this happened."
The topic of Blackwater's impunity was discussed during high-level meetings involving American and Iraqi officials, including Kamal, national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie and senior officials from the U.S. military and the U.S. Embassy, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Tensions escalated over a series of incidents beginning last Dec. 24, when a Blackwater employee allegedly shot and killed a bodyguard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi inside Baghdad's Green Zone. It remains unclear how the Blackwater employee was able to leave Iraq after the incident, which triggered a Justice Department investigation. No charges have been filed.
On May 24, a Blackwater team shot and killed an Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry gate. The incident triggered an armed standoff between Interior Ministry commandos and the Blackwater guards, who later told U.S. Embassy officials that the driver had veered too close to their convoy. Blackwater refused to give the guards' names or details of the incident to the Iraqis. The State Department said it planned to conduct an investigation, but no results have been announced.
It is unclear whether Blackwater could be criminally prosecuted in Iraq. A U.S. regulation called Order 17 enacted after the invasion by Iraq's U.S. administrators provides immunity from prosecution for private security contractors.
Kamal, a lawyer by training, suggested that Iraq's government could file lawsuits against Blackwater in U.S. courts to seek compensation for the victims.
"If Order 17 provides them with immunity from being questioned or the right to be tried under Iraqi law, it does not prevent the Iraqi government from filing suit in an American court," he said.
Fainaru reported from El Cerrito, Calif.