By Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 9 -- Private security guards from an Australian-run firm opened fire on a white sedan in downtown Baghdad on Tuesday afternoon, killing two Iraqi Christian women who were driving home from work.
The killings came at a time of unprecedented scrutiny into the behavior of Western private security guards, seen by many Iraqis as reckless mercenaries with little regard for Iraqi life. In an incident last month involving Blackwater USA, guards killed as many as 17 people in what Iraqi and some U.S. officials have described as unprovoked murder.
Tuesday's shooting involved Unity Resources Group, a Dubai-based company founded by an Australian and registered in Singapore. The firm was employed by RTI International, a nonprofit organization that does governance work in Iraq on a contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to David Snider, a USAID spokesman in Washington.
The two Iraqi women were shot as they came up behind a convoy of the firm's sport-utility vehicles, and their deaths seemed certain to heighten tensions between the Iraqi government and the thousands of private security guards operating in Iraq.
"They used excessive force against civilians. Two ladies have been killed," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "They are facing a high level of threat, but this does not entitle them not to be subjected to justice, law and accountability."
Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said Unity Resources was registered with the ministry and reported the shooting afterward. "They have admitted what they have done," said Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the chief Interior Ministry spokesman. "They have apologized and said they will do whatever the Interior Ministry asks them to do."
Both the company and the Interior Ministry have launched investigations into the incident.
The violence broke out in the early afternoon, when four SUVs belonging to Unity were heading east along a six-lane divided thoroughfare in Karrada, one of central Baghdad's most popular shopping districts. The white Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, carrying four people -- including at least three women -- drove toward the convoy from behind, witnesses said.
Iraqi police investigating the incident said the gunner in the last vehicle threw open a door and tossed what looked like a flare, then fired at least 19 rounds into the Oldsmobile.
According to Unity's chief operating officer, Michael Priddin, the women drove up quickly and "failed to stop despite escalation of warnings" including "hand signals and a signal flare."
"Finally shots were fired at the vehicle and it stopped in close vicinity to the security team," Priddin said in a telephone interview. "We deeply regret the firing of shots."
Iraqi police and witnesses at the scene gave differing accounts. Some said the Oldsmobile kept driving toward the convoy while others said it had stopped a safe distance away. They agreed that the car posed no threat to the security guards.
The gunfire sparked chaos on the crowded street as pedestrians ran for cover. A horse pulling a cart, used for selling black-market cooking gas, galloped away without its owner. Traffic policemen believed insurgents were attacking.
"A vehicle got close to them, and they opened fire on it randomly as if they were in the middle of a confrontation," said Ahmed Kadhim Hussein, a policeman at the scene. "You won't find a head. The brain is scattered on the ground."
He added: "I am shaking as I am trying to describe to you what happened. We are not able to eat. These were innocent people. Is it so natural for them to shoot innocent people?"
The Oldsmobile was shot first in the radiator as it passed a plumbing supply shop, employees said. The shooting continued and the car came to rest about 50 yards away, next to a yellow and white median curb marked by broken glass and blood.
"Probably they were not paying attention and they weren't able to stop right away," said one employee, who would not give his name.
The Oldsmobile, towed to a police station in Karrada, left little doubt how the women died. There were holes from at least 35 bullets that scarred the hood, punctured the windshield, popped tires and shattered three windows. Rivulets of blood ran down the driver's door.
The shots killed the driver, Marony Ohanis, born in 1958, and the front-seat passenger, Geneva Jalal Entranic, born in 1977, relatives said. A woman and a young boy were in the back seat, witnesses said. Police said the boy was shot in the arm. They were all friends who knew one another from the Armenian Orthodox church in Baghdad, relatives said. Christians are a small minority in Iraq.
After her husband died about two years ago from heart trouble, Ohanis, a college graduate with an agriculture degree, made money to support her three daughters by driving friends home from work, said Lida Sarkis, her niece. One of her daughters, a college student in engineering, sobbed as she walked around the broken car.
"She was very calm, she always prayed, she always went to church," Sarkis said. "They killed them. She was stopped. That's all."
In March 2006, a guard employed by Unity Resources Group allegedly shot dead an Australian resident in Baghdad whose car failed to stop at a security checkpoint. After an investigation, the case was eventually settled with the Iraqi authorities, Priddin said.
The company has operated in Iraq since 2004 and mostly protects premises and moving convoys, Priddin said. The firm operates in Pakistan and southern Sudan as well as in Asia and Australia, according to its Web site.
Also Tuesday, violence spiked across the country, with more than 45 people killed in bombings and shootings. In two of the deadliest incidents, suicide car bombers attacked in quick succession in northern Iraq, targeting a local police chief and a prominent Sunni tribal leader who has been working with U.S. troops in the fight against the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said.
The two car bombs detonated in the morning in Baiji, an oil refinery town, and killed at least seven people, including five Iraqi police officers, and wounded 21 others, according to Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a U.S. military spokesman in northern Iraq. Hospital officials said the death toll reached 19, with more people in critical condition.
One bomb blew up outside the home of the Baiji police chief, Col. Saad al-Nifoos, while the second, a tanker loaded with explosives, targeted Samir Ibrahim, the area leader of a movement known as the Awakening Council, a tribal organization formed to fight extremists. Both men survived. Another Sunni tribal leader allied with Americans in Salahuddin province was killed in the past month, Donnelly said.
"We see this as yet another drastic measure" by al-Qaeda in Iraq "trying to disrupt a process that's got some momentum," he said. "They're actually being marginalized by the people, and strategically this is a good sign."
The bombs destroyed and damaged homes, and rescue workers spent the morning pulling bodies from the rubble.
Ahmad Mahmmoud, a member of the governing council in Baiji, vowed to continue the fight to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq, "whom I consider vampires sucking the blood of poor Iraqis."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.