Iraq orders halt to US firm's operations after shootout
Raw Story (2007-09-17) AFP
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Iraq ordered the cancellation on Monday of the operating licence of US security firm Blackwater after it was involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed eight people, a senior official told AFP.
Blackwater offers personal security to US civilian officials working in Iraq.
"The interior minister (Jawad al-Bolani) has issued an order to cancel Blackwater's licence and the company is prohibited from operating anywhere in Iraq," interior ministry director of operations Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf said.
"We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime."
On Sunday, a US diplomatic convoy was involved in a shootout in Baghdad's Al-Yarmukh neighbourhood which killed at least eight people and wounded 13.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned what he called the "criminal" response of the contractors guarding the convoy which the US embassy said had come under attack from insurgents.
Blackwater representatives were not immediately available for comment.
Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said she was unable to confirm the cancellation of Blackwater's licence.
"I can't confirm anything of the kind. There are many issues to be addressed. We will not comment till all facts are clear," she told reporters.
Embassy information officer W. Johann Schmonsees told reporters that Blackwater had not "been expelled from the country yet".
"We are continuing to discuss with the Iraqi government," he said.
Nantongo said the shooting happened when the private security guards "reacted to a car bomb."
Schmonsees said "the car bomb was in proximity to where State Department personnel were meeting. This is the reason Blackwater responded to that."
The US convoy came under attack on Sunday while it was travelling past Al-Nissur Square in the Al-Yarmukh neighbourhood of west Baghdad.
The private security contractors accompanying the convoy returned fire.
According to Iraqi security officials, most of the dead and wounded were bystanders.
Tens of thousands of American and foreign troops deployed in Iraq have immunity from legal prosecution, but not the foreign private security contractors.
Blackwater, set up by a former US marine, made headlines when four of its contractors were killed and hung from a bridge in the then insurgent bastion of Fallujah west of Baghdad in 2004.
The company employs nearly 1,000 people in Iraq and operates a fleet of helicopters offering security to US embassy officials and other Americans and escorts for convoys on the country's dangerous roads.
There have been several other similar incidents involving private security contractors in the Iraqi capital.
The contractors are often accused of firing randomly and speeding through the crowded streets of Baghdad to avoid insurgent attack.
Lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman was hit by five bullets while trying to flee the scene in his car on Sunday, he told AFP in Baghdad's Al-Yarmukh Hospital where he was being treated.
Salman said he heard an explosion near Al-Nissur Square and saw the convoy two cars ahead of him.
"The foreigners in the convoy started shouting and signalling us to go back. I turned around and must have driven 100 feet (30 metres) when they started shooting.
"There were eight of them in four utility vehicles and all shooting with heavy machine guns," he said as he lay wrapped in bloodied bandages on the hospital bed.
"My car was hit with 12 bullets, of which four hit me in the back and one in the arm."
Salman said he continued to drive fast and approached an Iraqi army checkpoint which also opened fire on him for fear that he was a suicide bomber.
"I hit a nearby truck full of gas cylinders and that is when the soldiers came to me. They smashed the window of my car and realised I was already bleeding. They took me to the hospital," he said.
Salman said he had seen a woman and a traffic policeman killed and dozens of people hitting the ground to avoid the barrage of bullets.