Iraq to Deny New License To Blackwater Security Firm

By Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 29, 2009

MOSUL, Iraq, Jan. 28 -- The Iraqi government has informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that it will not issue a new operating license to Blackwater Worldwide, the embassy's primary security company, which has come under scrutiny for allegedly using excessive force while protecting American diplomats, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Iraq's Interior Ministry conveyed its decision to U.S. officials in Baghdad on Friday, in one of the boldest moves the government has made since the Jan. 1 implementation of a security agreement with the United States that sharply curbed American power in Iraq.

Blackwater employees who have not been accused of improper conduct will be allowed to continue working as private security contractors in Iraq if they switch employers, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.

The officials said Blackwater must leave the country as soon as a joint Iraqi-U.S. committee finishes drawing up guidelines for private contractors under the security agreement. It is unclear how long that will take. Blackwater employees and other U.S. contractors had been immune from prosecution under Iraqi law.

"When the work of this committee ends," Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said, private security companies "will be under the authority of the Iraqi government, and those companies that don't have licenses, such as Blackwater, should leave Iraq immediately."

The State Department said Wednesday that its contractors will obey Iraqi law.

"We will work with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision in a way that minimizes any impact on safety and security of embassy Baghdad personnel," spokesman Noel Clay said.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said she was not aware of the Iraqi government's decision.

"It would be irresponsible for me to comment on a decision that may or may not have been reached," she said in an e-mail Wednesday.

The United States was unable to persuade the Iraqi government to extend the immunity of its contractors past the expiration of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Dec. 31. No American diplomat has been killed during missions secured by Blackwater.

The North Carolina company became widely despised by Iraqis after a string of incidents during which its heavily armed guards were accused of using excessive force. The deadliest was the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting in Nisoor Square, in central Baghdad, when Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqis in a crowded street, killing 17 civilians, after the guards' convoy reportedly came under fire.

The U.S. attorney's office in Washington last month charged five of the men with voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to commit a violent act. The men entered not guilty pleas and are awaiting trial. A sixth guard reached a plea deal with prosecutors.

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