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Iraq says won't move to expel Blackwater

Dominic Evans and Paul Tait

Sun 23 Sep 2007

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will not take immediate steps to expel U.S. security firm Blackwater, under investigation over a shooting which killed 11 Iraqis a week ago, a government security official said on Sunday.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had vowed to freeze the work of Blackwater, which employs about 1,000 people guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, after the shooting in western Baghdad last Sunday but it was back at work five days later.

The Iraqi government and U.S. officials have agreed to set up a joint inquiry into the work of private security companies like U.S.-based Blackwater, which many Iraqis see as private armies acting with impunity.

In what appeared to be a further softening of Iraq's response to the shooting, a government spokesman for Baghdad security said Blackwater and other private security companies were doing important work guarding foreign diplomats.

"If we drive out or expel this company immediately there will be a security vacuum that will demand pulling some troops that work in the field so that we can protect these institutes," spokesman Tahseen al-Sheikhly, speaking through an interpreter, told a news conference.

"This will create a security imbalance," he said.

Maliki's government has called the shooting a "flagrant assault" and a crime that angered the Iraqi people. Suggesting the U.S. embassy stop using Blackwater, Maliki said on Wednesday he would not allow Iraqis to be killed in cold blood.

Blackwater, one of the biggest private security contractors in Iraq, has said its guards reacted "lawfully and appropriately" to an attack against a convoy it was guarding.

Its guards were back on Baghdad streets on Friday, after the U.S. embassy eased a three-day ban on road travel by U.S. officials outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

A senior Iraqi police source close to the investigation denied reports that the joint inquiry was examining video taken from the scene which showed that Blackwater guards had opened fire without any apparent provocation.


Iraq has said it would review the status of all private security firms, which employ between 25,000 and 48,000 guards, while the Interior Ministry has said it is drawing up legislation giving it wider powers over security contractors.

U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said it was too early to speculate on what the joint inquiry might find, or when it would it would present its findings.

"I wouldn't characterize a specific timeline until there is more information available," Fox said.

The U.S. embassy is conducting a separate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

Foreign private security firms operate in Iraq under a law, issued by U.S. administrators after the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, which granted them immunity from prosecution and has not been formally revoked. Many do not have valid licenses.

Sheikhly said Iraqi courts should deal with any crime committed on Iraqi soil. He said the apparent contradiction over the question of immunity was one subject to be addressed by the joint inquiry.

"The Iraqi side believes that the Iraqi criminal law should be activated on Iraqi soil against any kind of activity that could be classified as a crime," Sheikhly said.

Separately, the U.S. military said it had killed a suspected insurgent during a raid in Baghdad on Friday. Rafid Sabah, also known as Abu Taghrid, is described as a leader of an al Qaeda in Iraq car-bombing network.

"When ground forces entered the target building, Taghrid reached for a weapon and coalition forces, responding in self-defence, engaged and killed him," the military said in a statement.

:: Article nr. 36563 sent on 23-sep-2007 16:43 ECT


Link: africa.reuters.com/world/news/usnL15544758.html

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