Iraqis Detail Shooting by Guard Firm

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 26, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Guards employed by Unity Resources Group, a security company responsible for the shooting deaths of two Iraqi women here Oct. 9, had shot and seriously wounded a man driving a van 3 1/2 months earlier on the same Baghdad thoroughfare, according to four witnesses.

The company that hired Unity, RTI International, a North Carolina-based firm that promotes democracy in Iraq under a U.S. government contract, initially said it had no information about the previously undisclosed June 24 shooting. RTI later said it discovered internal reports about the incident following detailed inquiries from The Washington Post.

The case demonstrates how security companies such as Unity operate in a lawless void in Iraq, with many shooting incidents escaping official or public scrutiny. The lack of oversight is the focus of a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission on the use of private security contractors that was formed after guards for Blackwater Worldwide killed 17 civilians in Baghdad on Sept. 16.

RTI said Unity conducted a two-month investigation into the June 24 shooting but later deleted references to a casualty from its records because it was unable to identify the victim. "The incident was reported through formal channels at the time," RTI spokesman Patrick Gibbons said. Unity referred all questions about the case to RTI.

None of the witnesses interviewed by The Post said they had been contacted by Unity or RTI. Three of the witnesses described how the van driver's hand was nearly severed but said they never learned his identity.

Most of the more than 100 security firms in Iraq work under contracts or subcontracts for government agencies, private companies or individuals, creating layers of responsibility that make oversight difficult. Unity effectively regulates itself: The company reported 38 weapons-discharge incidents while protecting RTI employees over the past two years, according to a source familiar with the data. In each instance, the company conducted its own investigation.

RTI, a not-for-profit research company that has received at least $480 million for its efforts to strengthen local governance in Iraq, said it reports the incidents to its own employer, the U.S. Agency for International Development. But USAID, which is affiliated with the State Department, does not investigate, according to USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"USAID does not direct the security arrangements of its contractors," said Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman. "The contractor is contractually responsible for the safety of its employees. That's as far as the connection goes. If you want more details, I would refer you to RTI."

In the June 24 incident, Unity's guards raked a white van with automatic-weapons fire around 7 a.m. near a kindergarten on Karrada Street, a six-lane boulevard in central Baghdad. Witnesses said they used a crowbar to free the driver from the vehicle after he crashed into a lamppost. They said his left hand hung limply, attached only by skin. The man was semi-conscious when he was taken to the hospital in a civilian vehicle, the witnesses said.

"This guy, he wasn't doing anything threatening, but he didn't see them, so they shot him," said Amir Thamir, 28, who works at al-Mehdi bakery, about 20 yards from where the incident occurred.

On Oct. 9, about 250 yards up the same street, Unity guards sprayed a white Oldsmobile with dozens of bullets, killing two women in an incident that drew international attention because it occurred three weeks after the Blackwater shooting.

Unity said at the time that its guards opened fire after the driver failed to respond to warning signals. Through RTI, the company offered the same explanation for the June 24 incident.

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