Monday, September 17, 2007

Iraq Cancels Blackwater's License After Baghdad Shootout

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has "ordered the cancellation of the operating licence" of Blackwater, the American "security" firm which employs thousands of mercenaries in Iraq, according to the French news service AFP, which also said Blackwater "was involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed eight people." As usual in such incidents, the available details are sketchy and sometimes contradictory.

According to AFP, a
US convoy came under attack on Sunday while it was travelling past Al-Nissur Square in the Al-Yarmukh neighbourhood of west Baghdad, Iraqi security officials said.

The private security contractors accompanying the convoy returned fire.

According to the security officials, nine people were killed and 15 wounded. Khalaf confirmed eight people dead, including a policeman, and 13 wounded.
The BBC has more details on the shootout:
It broke out at about 1230 local time on Nisoor Square in the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Mansour, a police officer told the Associated Press news agency.

A witness said the shooting erupted after an explosion.

"We saw a convoy of SUVs passing in the street nearby. One minute later, we heard the sound of a bomb explosion followed by gunfire that lasted for 20 minutes between gunmen and the convoy people who were foreigners and dressed in civilian clothes.
The Guardian was a bit more circumspect about the allegations:
The Interior Ministry said Monday that it was pulling the license of an American security firm allegedly involved in the fatal shooting of civilians during an attack on a U.S. State Department motorcade in Baghdad.
The Guardian report also contains more detail, and more background:
The ministry said it would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have used excessive force in the Sunday incident.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said eight people were killed and 13 were wounded when security contractors working for Blackwater USA opened fire in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of western Baghdad.

"We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory. We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities," Khalaf said.

Blackwater, based in North Carolina, provides security for many U.S. civilian operations in the country. Phone messages left early Monday at Blackwater's office in North Carolina and with a company spokeswoman were not immediately returned.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said witness reports pointed to Blackwater involvement but said the incident was still under investigation. It was not immediately clear if the measure against Blackwater was intended to be temporary or permanent.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late Sunday condemned the shooting by a "foreign security company" and called it a "crime."

Tens of thousands of private security contractors operate in Iraq - some with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bulletproof vehicles.

Many have been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys, but none has faced charges or prosecution.

Iraqi police said the contractors were in a convoy of six sport utility vehicles and left the scene after the shooting. A witness said the gunfire broke out following an explosion.

The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented - as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers.
A report from Ireland's RTE, like most of the other reports available at this time, skips the "alleged":
Yesterday, a US diplomatic convoy came under fire in the Iraqi capital's western al-Yarmukh neighbourhood.

Blackwater members accompanying the convoy returned fire, leaving nine people dead, one of whom was an Iraqi police officer.

All of the other fatalities were civilian bystanders.

Iraqi Brigadier-General, Abdul-Karim Khalaf, confirmed that a mortar had landed close to the convoy and said the US firm had 'opened fire randomly at citizens'.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has strongly condemned the company's actions and denounced what he called the criminal response of the US contractors.

And today Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani issued an order to cancel Blackwater's licence and prohibit the company from operating anywhere in Iraq.

Mr Bolani also confirmed that a criminal investigation had been launched following the incident.

Thousands of private security contractors, many of them US and European, have worked in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Following a number of similar incidents in recent years, foreign private security firms have been accused of operating outside the law with little or no accountability either to the Iraqi government or US military forces.
The BBC report cited above provides a bit more context:
Sunday's violence followed the publication of a survey of Iraqis which suggested that up to 1.2m people might have died because of the conflict in Iraq.

A UK-based polling agency, Opinion Research Business (ORB), said it had extrapolated the figure by asking a random sample of 1,461 Iraqi adults how many people living in their household had died as a result of the violence rather than from natural causes.

The results lend weight to a 2006 survey of Iraqi households published by the Lancet, which suggested that about 655,000 Iraqi deaths were "a consequence of the war".
It's very difficult to predict what impact -- if any -- this incident will have on the situation in Iraq. But it's not hard to imagine Blackwater officials saying (or thinking), "We're here. We're armed to the teeth. We're staying. Who needs a license?"