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Monday, September 17, 2007

Iraq Suspends "Criminal" US Blackwater

BAGHDAD — The tragic killing of eight Iraqi civilians has revived a heated debate about the role of American security contractors in war-ravaged Iraq.

"The interior minister has issued an order to cancel Blackwater's license and the company is prohibited from operating anywhere in Iraq," Interior Ministry Director of Operations Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf said.

A US diplomatic convoy came under attack on Sunday, September 16, in Baghdad's Al-Yarmukh neighborhood of west Baghdad.

The private security contractors accompanying the convoy responded by opening fire and killing eight Iraqis.

Witnesses and victims lying in hospital suffering gunshot wounds said the Blackwater guards had opened indiscriminate fire into the crowded streets and at cars trapped behind the convoy.

When the pandemonium had died down, at least eight people were dead and 13 wounded.

"The foreigners in the convoy started shouting and signaling us to go back. I turned around and must have driven 100 feet (30 meters) when they started shooting," said lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman.

He was hit by five bullets while trying to flee the scene in his car and is being treated in Baghdad's Al-Yarmukh Hospital.

"My car was hit with 12 bullets, of which four hit me in the back and one in the arm," he said as he lay wrapped in bloodied bandages on the hospital bed.

"There were eight of them in four utility vehicles and all shooting with heavy machine guns."

Salman said he had seen a woman and a traffic policeman killed and dozens of people hitting the ground to avoid the barrage of bullets.

"We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime," said Khalaf, the interior ministry official.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had condemned the "criminal" response of the contractors guarding the convoy.

There have been several other similar incidents involving private security contractors in the Iraqi capital.

The contractors are often accused of firing randomly and speeding through the crowded streets of Baghdad to avoid attack.

Blackwater Mercenaries

US Embassy information officer W. Johann Schmonsees told reporters that Blackwater had not "been expelled from the country yet".

"We are continuing to discuss with the Iraqi government," he said.

No representatives from Blackwater, which offers personal security to US civilian officials working in Iraq, were immediately available for comment.

Blackwater's security consulting division holds at least 109 million dollars worth of State Department contracts in Iraq and is authorized to use deadly force, the Washington Post said in June.

It employs nearly 1,000 people in Iraq and operates a fleet of helicopters offering security to US embassy officials and other Americans and escorts for convoys on the country's dangerous roads.

Riding machine-gun mounted utility vehicles, the armed contractors employed by the North Carolina firm have gained a notoriety for shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later.

In May, a guard working for Blackwater shot and killed an Iraqi driver near the interior ministry.

The Blackwater guards said the victim drove too close to their convoy and drew fire.

Blackwater made headlines when four of its contractors were killed and hung from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004.

In April 2005, six Blackwater contractors were killed when Iraqi resistance downed a Bulgarian helicopter with a missile strike near the northern city of Tikrit.

A seventh Blackwater employee was killed at the same time near Ramadi when a roadside bomb blew up near his vehicle.

Established 10 years ago by Erik Prince, right-wing son of a multi-millionaire and a former Navy SEAL, the security consulting firm has grown into what US investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill describes as the "world's most powerful mercenary army."

According to Scahill, Blackwater has "more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries including the United States."

Its "private soldiers" arrived in Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion, being employed by then US administrator Paul Bremer.

Blackwater is by no means the only private security company operating in Iraq or losing personnel.

Jose Luis Gomez del Prado, head of a UN workgroup on the use of mercenaries in Iraq, estimates that at least 160 companies are in the country, employing between them 35,000 to 40,000 people.

He also estimated in January that more than 400 private employees have died in Iraq since 2003.

Though originally hired to protect US officials and convoys transporting vehicles, weapons and ammunition for the Iraqi army and police, armed contractors are becoming increasingly involved in military action, the Post said.

They can make up to 20,000 dollars a month in Iraq.

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