By Aseel Kami, Reuters, Sept. 17, 2007
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq announced on Monday it had withdrawn the license of a U.S. security firm and would prosecute employees it said were involved in a Baghdad shooting in which 11 people were killed.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said guards working for Blackwater, one of the biggest foreign security contractors in Iraq, opened fire after mortar rounds landed near their convoy in west Baghdad's Mansour district on Sunday.
"By chance the company was passing by. They opened fire randomly at citizens," Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said. Eleven people were killed, including one police officer, and 13 people were wounded, he said.
"We have withdrawn its license," Khalaf said, adding that the ministry was investigating the incident and would "deliver those who committed this act to the court."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and apologized over the shooting and they agreed to run a "fair and transparent investigation," Maliki's office said.
"She has expressed her personal apologies and the apologies of the government of the United States. She confirmed that the United Sates will take immediate actions to prevent such actions from happening again," a statement from Maliki's office said.
It was not clear whether the Iraqi government would still proceed with its decision to withdraw Blackwater's license.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the shooting took place after a car bomb exploded when U.S. diplomats were nearby.
"The car bomb was in proximity to a place where State Department personnel were meeting. That is why Blackwater responded to the incident," spokesman Johann Schmonsees said.
The embassy declined to confirm that Blackwater's license had been revoked.
Late on Monday, Blackwater said there had been no official action by the Interior Ministry on revoking its license.
Blackwater, which employs hundreds of foreign contractors in Iraq and is responsible for U.S. Embassy security, said its guards had acted "lawfully and appropriately" in reaction to a hostile attack.
"Blackwater regrets any loss of life but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life," spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said in an e-mail. She said Blackwater would cooperate with any inquiry.
U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee chairman Henry Waxman said he will hold hearings on the shooting incident. "The controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors," Waxman said.
Blackwater's distinctive small black helicopters hover in the skies above Baghdad and its armed vehicles shadow convoys of senior officials through the city's streets.
Four Blackwater employees were killed in Falluja in 2004. Insurgents then burned their bodies and hung the charred remains from a bridge -- prompting an all-out U.S. military assault on the Iraqi city.
Maliki condemned Sunday's shooting and vowed to punish the perpetrators and their employers.
"We will work to punish and halt the work of the security company which conducted this criminal act," state television quoted him as saying.
The U.S. Embassy said it was seeking clarification on the legal status of security contractors and whether Blackwater employees could be prosecuted in Iraq.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said foreign contractors "must respect Iraqi laws and the right of Iraqis to independence on their land."
"These cases have happened more than once and we can't keep silent in the face of them," he told Arabiya television.
Tens of thousands of private security contractors, many of them American and European, have worked in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many Iraqis believe they operate outside the law with little accountability either to the Iraqi government or U.S. military forces.
Khalaf did not say how many contractors were involved in the shooting. He said the investigating committee had gone to the scene and spoken to witnesses and would also visit the company's compound in Baghdad.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad, Arshad Mohammed in Washington)