By Steve Fainaru and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 19, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 18 -- Two men and a woman were wounded Thursday in a quiet Kurdish village in northern Iraq when guards from a British security company raked a crowded taxi with automatic weapons fire, local police said. It was the third shooting of Iraqi civilians by a private security firm in the past month.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said the guards were employed by Erinys International. The British firm provides security for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under a contract that has paid the company about $175 million since 2004, $125 million more than originally budgeted. The contract is set to expire next month after Erinys failed to win renewal.
The Erinys guards were traveling in a convoy of three armored sport-utility vehicles on the main street of Qara Hanjiel, a village about 22 miles east of the northern city of Kirkuk. The vehicles were in an area bounded by concrete dwellings, restaurants and stores when they encountered the taxi, which was filled with five Kurdish civilians, according to local Iraqi police and the vehicle's passengers.
Navy Capt. Vic Beck, the military spokesman, said Erinys reported that the guards opened fire after the vehicle approached "at a high rate of speed" and that one person was wounded. The guards issued a series of warnings before shooting into the vehicle, "which resulted in the alleged injury to a civilian occupant," Beck said.
An Erinys spokesman in Washington said he had no information on the incident.
Iraqi police and passengers said that the shooting was unprovoked and that three people were wounded. After the initial volley of bullets, they said, the Erinys guards continued firing to prevent a passenger from getting out of the taxi and later refused to speak to Iraqi police.
"Those are wild monsters, criminals and killers who shot us even though we did not obstruct their way and we are in a safe area where there is no al-Qaeda or terrorists," said Singer Moulmood, 24, an employee of a Kurdish television station, who was wounded in the shoulder while sitting in the back seat. "The Americans are responsible for this act by this security company because they are supporting them."
The two other wounded passengers were Zarak Nouri Qadar, 35, who was shot in the right eye while in the front seat; and his brother Yara, 28, who was struck in the neck and hand, which he had raised to protect himself. A Washington Post special correspondent counted three bullet holes in the windshield of the orange-and-white taxi, two on the hood, one in the passenger-side door and one in the roof.
The private security industry in Iraq has come under scrutiny following a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad in which the Iraqi government says guards employed by Blackwater Worldwide killed 17 civilians. On Oct. 9, guards from Australia-based Unity Resources Group, killed two women on a crowded Baghdad street.
In each case, the companies said their guards opened fire after a car approached in what was perceived to be a threatening manner. The cases are under investigation.
The three companies work in support of the U.S.-led coalition but fall under separate operating authority. Erinys operates under a Defense Department contract, placing the company under U.S. military command. The military said it would investigate the case according to U.S. military regulations.
Blackwater is a State Department security provider, subject to that agency's regulations. Unity provides security for RTI International, a research and technology firm under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a taxpayer-funded agency affiliated with the State Department.
Because Erinys did not remain at the scene of the shooting, Iraqi authorities were unable to identify the firm, they said. The passengers reported only that the SUVs had lion logos, the Erinys company emblem, affixed to their doors.
Elsewhere in Kurdish northern Iraq, hundreds protested the Turkish parliament's approval of a measure authorizing a military incursion into Iraq to stop attacks by rebels. In Irbil, protesters carried Kurdish flags and signs that read "No to a military solution" and "Protecting Kurdistan borders is a national duty."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he anticipates limited Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish separatists in the north of the country, and he called for the rebels to leave as soon as possible. "To talk about a major military offensive and major cross-border incursion, that I do not expect," he told the Reuters news agency.
In Baghdad, residents braced for violence after reports that Saddam Hussein aide Ali Hassan Majid, known as Chemical Ali, was expected to be hanged shortly, along with at least one other top Baath Party official. Majid has been sentenced to death for his role in the so-called Anfal campaign in the late 1980s that killed more than 100,000 Kurds.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said the executions could not take place until there was agreement between top government officials over rulings by Iraqi courts dealing with the case.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.