By Ernesto Londoño and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A04
BAGHDAD -- A top Iraqi official said Wednesday that guards formerly employed by the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide must leave the country within days.
The statement by Interior Minister Jawad Bolani -- made in an interview with the Associated Press -- could lead to the expulsion of as many as 250 guards who once worked for Blackwater and who now work for other security firms in Iraq. The Interior Ministry controls the country's police forces and licenses private security companies.
Still, some Iraqi officials dismissed Bolani's announcement as posturing, saying he was seeking to win political points ahead of a March 7 parliamentary election. Bolani, a Shiite, leads a mixed, secular slate of candidates.
Cracking down on guards associated with Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, and foreign security companies in general, is likely to resonate with voters. Many Iraqis came to see foreign security guards as reckless mercenaries who acted callously toward Iraqis.
Blackwater, in particular, became loathed in Iraq after a September 2007 shooting in central Baghdad that led to the deaths of at least 14 Iraqis. The dismissal late last year of an indictment in U.S. District Court against five of the Blackwater guards involved in the shooting unnerved Iraqi officials. Xe Services was expelled from Iraq last year.
A senior American official said none of the guards involved in the Nisour Square shooting remain on U.S. security contracts.
"Our embassy in Baghdad will take up the matter with the Iraqi government," the official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. Referring to the timing of the announcement, he noted: "It's political season in Iraq."
The sudden departure of 250 guards would be a blow to the embassy at a delicate time. Violence has increased in the run-up to the election, and American officials are on high alert after the kidnapping of a U.S. contractor in Baghdad last month.
Sheridan reported from Washington. Special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.