Iraq considers new steps against security companies

BAGHDAD — Two survivors of Sunday's shooting at a busy Baghdad traffic roundabout said Tuesday that security guards for a State Department convoy opened fire without provocation, contradicting assertions by the guards' U.S.-based employer, Blackwater USA, that they were responding to enemy fire.

Hassan Jaber Salma, 50, a lawyer who suffered eight gunshot wounds in the incident, said he and other motorists were attempting to clear a path for the convoy when the Blackwater guards suddenly strafed the line of traffic with gunfire.

Sami Hawas Karim, 42, a taxi driver who was shot in the hip and side, said he, too, had stopped for the convoy when he saw the guards suddenly open fire on a car bearing a man, a woman and a small child. The guards then opened fire on maintenance workers in the square, the car in front of him, the car behind him and a minibus full of girls.

When he felt the pain of his two wounds, he opened the door of his car and fell to the ground; his 13-year-old son in the car with him wasn't harmed.

"I thought about my family and my five kids," he said. "I remembered my two brothers who were killed, and I said to myself, 'I'm going to be the third.'"

Their accounts came as Iraqi government officials vowed to introduce legislation next week that would revoke a 2003 U.S. decree exempting private security firms from Iraqi laws.

Such an assertion of independence could put the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on a collision course with the United States, which is dependent on thousands of private security contractors to supplement the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy, whose diplomats, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker, are guarded by Blackwater, ordered its civilian employees not to leave the heavily fortified Green Zone, or International Zone, until further notice.

"In light of the serious security incident involving a U.S. Embassy protection detail in the Mansour District of Baghdad, the embassy has suspended official U.S. government civilian ground movements outside the International Zone (IZ) and throughout Iraq," the embassy said in a "warden's message" e-mailed to Americans in Iraq.

There was still no comprehensive official version of Sunday's shooting, which left nine people dead and 15 wounded and prompted an outcry from Iraqi officials who claimed that Blackwater guards had opened fire without provocation.

Iraqi officials said that they would revoke the company's license, but on Tuesday a government spokesman described that revocation as temporary until a full investigation could be completed. The spokesman, Ali al Dabbagh, said a joint committee between the Iraqi and American governments had been formed to look into what had happened.

"The preliminary report shows there was no shooting against them," Dabbagh said, referring to the Blackwater guards. "They should follow an Iraqi standard and Iraqi laws. They cannot have immunity."

The U.S. Embassy for the first time acknowledged the shooting in a statement that said "an exchange of fire occurred while diplomatic security personnel protecting an embassy motorcade were reacting to a car-bomb in the Mansour district of Baghdad. The incident resulted in deaths and injuries."

That version differed from a statement released Monday by Blackwater. "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."

Neither of the two survivors interviewed at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital said he'd heard explosions or gunfire before the Blackwater guards opened fire on cars that had stopped to allow a four-vehicle convoy to pass.

Salma said that as the Blackwater guards opened fire, he turned his car into oncoming traffic in an effort to escape, only to have Iraqi soldiers nearby also begin firing on him, apparently fearing that he was a suicide bomber. Ducking his head to avoid bullets that slammed into the driver's seat and dashboard, he lost control of the car and slammed into a truck carrying cooking gas canisters, breaking three ribs.

"I swear they were not attacked by anything," said Salma, his torso wrapped in a heavy plaster cast and his breathing labored from gunshot wounds in the chest, stomach and back. His wife sobbed next to him.

Both Karim and Salma said a helicopter was on the scene. Salma said it also fired into the line of cars, contradicting Blackwater's statement that its helicopter didn't open fire.

Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said that the preliminary report also showed that a helicopter had fired into the crowd.

"No country in the world would allow the way they are operating in Iraq," Dabbagh said.

Dabbagh said that the Ministry of Interior is reviewing the guidelines for all private security companies working in Iraq either under contract to the U.S. government and military or to private companies.

The activities of private security companies in Iraq have been controversial since 2003, when L. Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. official in Iraq, issued what was known as Order No. 17, exempting the companies from Iraqi law and oversight.

Since then, Iraqis have frequently accused private security guards of abusing their authority, but they have little recourse under U.S. or Iraqi law. In December, for example, an off-duty Blackwater security adviser 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 were filed.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abbel Karim Khalaf said that immunity is likely to end soon. He said that a proposed law cancelling Order No. 17 has been sent to the government's advisory council. That law is expected to be referred to parliament next week, where it's likely to win wide approval.

How that would affect the operations of foreign security companies is unknown. Efforts to reach the Private Security Company Association of Iraq were unsuccessful.

Blackwater, which is headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is perhaps the best known security company operating in Iraq, but it is by no means the only one. The director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq told Congress in 2006 that 181 companies were operating in Iraq.

Many have become critical to U.S. operations here. In addition to providing security for U.S. Embassy personnel, private contractors guard military supply convoys, man checkpoints and perform other security functions that would have to be taken over by U.S. military personnel if the security companies were forced to leave Iraq or cut back their presence.

The decision Tuesday by the embassy to ban travel outside the Green Zone underscores the point.

Without security guards, U.S. officials would be unable to travel to almost anywhere in Iraq, though it wasn't clear whether the travel ban was related to the revocation of Blackwater's license or to the overall security situation in the capital, which has seen an uptick in violence in the last several days.

The embassy's e-mail said the travel ban was to "assess mission security and procedures, as well as to assess possible increased threat to personnel traveling with security details outside the International Zone."

An embassy spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed.)