Iraqis Furious About 'Above-the-Law' Security Contractors

Iraqi politicians and lawyers voiced anger Wednesday that "above-the-law" security contractors were continuing to operate in Iraq while being probed over a deadly shooting incident 17 days ago.

"Some foreign companies believe they are above the Iraqi law," Amira al-Baldawi, a member of the ruling coalition, said as more reports emerged of "cowboy" antics and drunken shootings involving US firm Blackwater.

Iraqi officials had tried to stop Blackwater from operating after its employees were accused of opening fire indiscriminately in central Baghdad on September 16 killing at least 10 Iraqi civilians, Baldawi said.

"The Iraqi government on its part has taken measures to stop Blackwater but this company has connections with bodies and consequently would not abide by the Iraqi law," she said, without specifying the nature of the "bodies".

Baghdad lawyer Hassan Shaaban said the firm should have been shut down until investigators probing the September 16 incident had finished their work.

"This company should halt its work until investigations are over," he said. "There should have been an investigation into the Nisoor Square event before a decision was taken to say if they should continue working in Iraq or not."

"As far as the law is concerned, if the probes prove they are responsible for the incident they should be expelled in accordance with Iraqi law," said Hassan.

"They are not an army neither US armed forces. They merely present company services and consequently any violation on the land of Iraq should be subject to the Iraqi judiciary."

Blackwater shootout left 17 Iraqis dead

Seventeen people were killed and 24 injured in the September 16 Baghdad shootout involving Blackwater USA, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

That death toll is significantly higher than the 10 originally reported in the incident which prompted intense criticism of Blackwater's operational activities.

Citing witnesses, Iraqi investigators and a US official, the Times said the shootout in Baghdad's Nisour Square started when a Blackwater guard fired a single shot at a hospital pathologist driving his mother on an errand, killing him.

When the man's car continued to roll ahead toward the Blackwater team, they let loose "an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions," killing the mother in the car and hitting numerous fleeing Iraqis, the newspaper said.

The Times also said that shortly after the first shootout, a Blackwater convoy opened fire at another spot a few hundred meters (yards) away near the square, an incident that had previously gone unreported.

While the Times report suggested that the Blackwater team did not come under attack, as the company has claimed, it said it was not clear if Iraqi security forces themselves began firing once the incident began -- which could have led the Blackwater men to believe they were being attacked.

The Times followed in the wake of a US Congressional committee report which accused Blackwater, which protects US diplomats and visiting dignitaries in Iraq, of covering up fatal shootings involving its staff.

Blackwater chief says Iraq guards not 'cowboys'

The boss of US security contractor Blackwater Tuesday denied his staff ran riot like "cowboys" and said they acted appropriately in the Baghdad shootout.

Company founder and chief executive Erik Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL who had previously shunned the limelight, warned lawmakers there had been a "rush to judgment" over the deadly September 16 shooting.

Prince, wearing a suit and close cropped hair, confronted hostile Democratic lawmakers determined to put his firm, which has reportedly scooped one billion dollars in US government contracts, in the dock.

Prince appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee amid a public storm over the role of for-profit contract firms in war zones, and a string of probes into Blackwater's conduct.

A committee report found that Blackwater, which protects US diplomats and visiting dignitaries in Iraq, had been involved in nearly 200 shootings there since 2005, and accused it of covering up fatal shootings involving its staff.

But Prince warned the firm was the victim of "negative and baseless allegations reported as truth."

"There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information," he said.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman questioned whether Blackwater activities conflicted with US interests.

"The September 16 shooting … is just the latest in a series of troubling Blackwater incidents," the Democrat said.

In one cited by the committee, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi.

Prince said the man had broken company rules, and had been immediately fired, and he rejected a remark by one senior US commander quoted in the Washington Post that Blackwater employees "often act like cowboys."

"We strive for perfection … but the fog of war and accidents, and the bad guys just have to get lucky once."

Representative Dennis Kucinich, a longshot Democratic presidential hopeful, said firms like Blackwater had no interest in promoting peace.

"If war is privatized, then private contractors have a vested interest in keeping the war going. The longer the war goes on, the more money they make."

The committee report accused the State Department of failing to restrain Blackwater's activities and helping to cover up some wrongdoings.

No Blackwater talk as Bush meets Talabani

US President George W. Bush and visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani met Tuesday but did not discuss the controversy over, the White House said.

"It was not discussed. It did not come up," Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said as Blackwater founder and chief executive Erik Prince defended his embattled firm over a September 16 shootout.

"I don't think that he (Bush) has any reason to believe that they are not, at the moment, conducting themselves appropriately," she said, as several probes looked into the incident and possible changes in US policy as a result.

"The State Department, the Department of Defense, the Iraqis are all working toward finding out what happened," she said. "We're all working on it in good faith. So there was no discussion about it."

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