BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities on Monday threatened to revoke the license of a private U.S. company that guards top American officials here, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, saying the company's employees killed at least nine people Sunday in a shooting spree in central Baghdad.
Whether the Iraqi Interior Ministry will be able to enforce its decision to ban North Carolina-based Blackwater Security from operating in Iraq is likely to be a major test between the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the United States.
Blackwater, founded by a major Republican Party benefactor, is among the most prominent — and most controversial — of dozens of companies that provide security to both government and private individuals in Iraq. In 2003, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority exempted the companies and their employees from prosecution under Iraqi law, but Iraqi officials disputed whether that exemption remains in effect, and U.S. officials declined to comment.
"We will work on punishing and stopping the work of the foreign security company that committed the criminal operation in Al Nisour Square," Maliki told Iraqi state television.
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Abdel Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said Iraq also would seek to try the Blackwater employees for the shootings.
"The Americans helped us build an authentic Iraqi security establishment, and the Iraqi government has stopped the authorization of this company," Khalaf said. "We are waiting for the judicial warrant for the perpetrators."
In an e-mailed statement, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company's guards had acted "lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack." She said the Iraqi government hadn't taken any official action to revoke the company's license.
U.S. officials provided few details of the shooting, which took place as Blackwater guards were escorting unidentified State Department officials through a central Baghdad neighborhood.
Witnesses said the dead included the driver of one car and a mother and child whom he was transporting. Police said the dead included five Iraqi police officers who'd tried to help. At least nine cars were set on fire.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the incident as a "firefight," but three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting said that only the Blackwater guards were firing.
The witnesses said the shooting began after a convoy of four gray armored vehicles drove into Al Nisour Square, a major intersection in central Baghdad. Iraqi police stopped traffic to let the convoy pass, the witnesses said. One car, however, drove up from behind the traffic to squeeze into a spot at the front. As it did, the security contractors opened fire, the witnesses said.
The young driver was killed instantly, but the shooting continued. The witnesses said they believe a grenade was launched at the car, which burst into flames, killing a young mother and baby in the back seat.
When Iraqi police approached to help the people in the burning car, the contractors started shooting at them. They also shot at a minivan and a bus, the witnesses said.
On Monday, the charred white vehicle where the man, mother and child were said to have died was pushed to the side of the road.
Police said 15 people were wounded. None of the dead and wounded was an armed insurgent, police said.
"We believe some innocent life was lost. Nobody wants to see that. But I can't tell you who was responsible for that," McCormack said. He said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Maliki on Monday to "express regret for the loss of innocent life."
In its statement, Blackwater denied that its contractors had opened fire without provocation. "The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire," the statement said.
"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," the statement said. No Blackwater contractor was reported wounded.
U.S. Embassy officials wouldn't comment on whether Blackwater's contract had been suspended.
In Washington, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a critic of U.S. use of private security companies and the chair of the House Government Operations Committee, promised an investigation.
"The controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors," Waxman said.
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said he would continue to press for legislation that would make private security contractors subject to U.S. law and allow the FBI to investigate suspected crimes. He said he'd written Rice, asking her whether she could investigate the incident and bring charges if warranted.
Price said he feared that such incidents undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"I think it has the potential to be a real flashpoint. And it may have implications for our mission and our troops," he said.
Blackwater, which is headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is perhaps the best known security company operating in Iraq. Founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who has given more than $225,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates, Blackwater was a training facility for police officers and the military until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Its notoriety grew when four of its employees were killed in March 2004 as they were driving through the city of Fallujah to escort a food shipment. The men's bodies were set on fire and dragged through the streets, and two of the mutilated corpses were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Since that incident, the role of private security guards has been a controversial issue. Iraqi civilians and officials have accused security contractors of abusing their authority.
On Christmas Eve, for example, an off-duty Blackwater contractor shot and killed a bodyguard assigned to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi. Blackwater quickly flew the contractor back to the United States.
No charges have been filed in that case, or any other, and there was skepticism that participants in Sunday's incident would face punishment, despite statements from Iraqi officials.
"A Blackwater employee is not going to be subject to Iraqi courts," said Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.
Iraqis expressed dismay at the events.
"This is a disaster. I don't think we have sovereignty in this country while the security companies have the authority to kill Iraqis," said Ahmed Ali, 38, a teacher who was holding second-term exams for students who hadn't passed last year.
He said he heard the shooting and watched the ambulances respond. "Are we not human beings and is this not our land?"
Founded in 1996 by Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal, multimillionaire and conservative Republican donor, Blackwater began as a training facility for police and the military but began offering security services after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prince, whose father helped bankroll conservative Christian organizations such as Focus On Family and Family Research Council, has given at least $225,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates.
The Congressional Research Service said that as of May there were 987 Blackwater security contractors in Iraq. The director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq told Congress in 2006 that there were 48,000 contractors from 181 companies providing security in Iraq.
(Fadel and special correspondent Kadhim reported from Baghdad. Neff, of the (Raleigh) News & Observer, reported from Raleigh, N.C. Contributing were Barbara Barrett in Washington and special correspondent Jenan Hussein in Baghdad.)