Iraq holds 43 in convoy in shooting of woman

Laborers, security personnel arrested despite evidence most were unarmed

November 21, 2007|By Doug Smith | Doug Smith,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials took a hard line yesterday on alleged abuses by foreign security contractors, saying criminal charges would be filed in the nonfatal shooting of a woman Monday as a guarded convoy carrying laborers passed by.

"We will no longer be easy on this," said Qassim Atta, a spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Baghdad.

Iraqi forces arrested 43 people who had been traveling in the convoy, including laborers and security personnel. Among the detainees were two Fijians, 10 Iraqis, 21 Sri Lankans, one Indian and nine Nepalese, the U.S. military said yesterday.

Despite apparent evidence that most of the 43 people who were detained in the shooting were unarmed, Atta said none would be released until the investigation is completed.

Atta did not clarify whether the detainees were being held as suspects or witnesses. But he said that those responsible for the shooting would be turned over to Iraqi courts for prosecution and that the others would be released. He could not say when that would occur.

"We are now interrogating the members of the company to find out who did the shooting, and we will hand him to the judicial courts," Atta said.

The charges would be driving on the wrong side of the street, shooting randomly at civilians and injuring one, Atta said.

The U.S. military said it was working with Iraqi forces to provide support but was not involved in the investigation.

"It is up to the government of Iraq to determine what charges, if any, will be filed," the military said in a statement yesterday.

Attempts to prosecute could prove problematic because Iraqi law grants immunity to foreign contractors under an order issued by U.S. officials in 2004.

After a shooting in September involving guards from Blackwater USA that left at least 17 Iraqis dead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet proposed a law last month that would repeal contractors' immunity. The Iraqi parliament has not yet acted on the measure.

The employer of the workers detained in yesterday's shooting, Almco Group, is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and has contracts with the U.S. Defense Department to provide some bases with essentials such as food, water and tents, the U.S. military said. It also has a contract to build a courthouse as part of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Meanwhile, al-Maliki lashed out at the country's Sunni Arab vice president in a newspaper interview published yesterday, drawing attention to a bitter rift between two key politicians from rival sects at a time the United States is pressing for Iraqi unity.

The outburst, printed in the London-based, Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, occurred as U.S. officials are urging the Iraqis to take advantage of a downturn in violence to resolve their differences before next year's planned drawdown of U.S. forces.

In the interview, al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was to blame for a backlog of legislation adopted by parliament but not yet ratified by the three-member presidential council of which al-Hashemi is a member.

Al-Maliki also said al-Hashemi's Iraq Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, was not representative of Iraq's Sunni Arab community.

Al-Maliki's attack on al-Hashemi and his criticism of the Accordance Front suggested that the rift between the two sides was widening.

"It's a campaign to discredit good intentions," said Lubnah al-Hashemi, the vice president's daughter and his press secretary. "But we refuse to be drawn into a war of words through the media."

Doug Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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