Blackwater allowed to resume its duties

Al-Maliki has called for firing U.S. security firm over fatal shootings

September 22, 2007|By Ned Parker | Ned Parker,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- The security company Blackwater USA was allowed to resume escorting U.S. officials in Baghdad yesterday, days after the fatal shooting of 11 Iraqis drew criticism from the Iraqi government over the company's conduct and its employees' immunity from Iraqi law.

The U.S. Embassy reinstated Blackwater despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's insistence that the State Department fire the company and his government's demand that Blackwater and similar contractors be stripped of their immunity, which was granted by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III in 2004.

"This morning, we resumed taking requests for movements. The idea was to have limited movements outside the Green Zone. Obviously, this was a step taken in consultation with the Iraqi authorities," embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.

A senior Iraqi lawmaker, Sami Askari, said officials would be informed of the whereabouts of Blackwater personnel.

"This time, they will be restricted. They will be required to inform the Iraqi government about their movements until the end of the investigation," said Askari, an al-Maliki adviser.

Nantongo, however, said the embassy would not provide precise details of its missions.

The embassy announced Tuesday that it had forbidden U.S. officials to travel outside the Green Zone, the enclave of the Iraqi government and diplomatic community, noting the increased threat of attacks after the Blackwater incident.

The U.S and Iraqi governments have been consulting since Sunday, when a Blackwater security detail killed 11 people in western Baghdad's Mansour district.

A preliminary Iraqi government investigation, carried out by the Interior Ministry, found that the armed guards fired on Iraqi civilians without provocation. Blackwater and the State Deparment have said that the security detail was hit by bullets.

Iraqi officials have retreated after declaring that they would take away security contractors' immunity. Instead, the prime minister agreed Wednesday that a joint Iraqi-U.S. commission would review the status of security contractors and be given the results of an Iraqi and U.S. military investigation.

The investigation into what happened Sunday has been complicated by the involvement of the embassy's diplomatic security agents, who work with and supervise Blackwater. The embassy's security department has been accused by some diplomats of failing to challenge Blackwater in the past over questionable episodes.

Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution expert on security contractors, said he is skeptical that the joint commission will change the rules and hold Blackwater accountable for any misconduct in Iraq.

"Based on the past track record, I don't have a lot of evidence to base that hope on, but maybe this changes the game," Singer said.

Singer criticized the embassy's insistence on conducting its own investigation, saying, "It is utter silliness. All it does is guarantee we will have two versions of the story and further the disconnect and sense of double standards."

Contractors such as Blackwater have damaged the U.S.-led effort to woo Iraqis away from Sunni and Shiite extremists, Singer said

Such animosity was evident at Friday prayers in Najaf, a Shiite shrine city, where a senior cleric railed against Blackwater and warned Washington officials that apologies such as those of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are not enough.

"It is important that these companies be regulated by the law, and therefore an apology from Rice is not enough. Thousands of Iraqi children, women and elderly have been killed - as the Americans put it - by accident," cleric Sadruddin Qubanchi said.

Civilian contractors were also doubtful that justice would prevail.

"We think it's hard to give Blackwater the benefit of the doubt," one contractor said on condition of anonymity. "Even among their peer group, we are also tired of having guns pulled on us and being generally abused."

Against the backdrop of the Blackwater controversy, military officials said yesterday that the areas of Baghdad under the control of U.S. forces had increased, but they acknowledged that Iraqi troops were taking the lead in fewer than 10 percent of the city's neighborhoods.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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