Maliki blasts Blackwater firm for other incidents

BAGHDAD — Blackwater security guards who protect top U.S. diplomats in Iraq have been involved in at least seven serious incidents, some of which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said Wednesday.

Maliki didn't detail the incidents, which he said add to the case against the North Carolina-based security firm. Blackwater's license to operate here has been revoked while U.S. and Iraqi officials investigate a shooting Sunday that Iraqi officials now say left at least 11 people dead.

But Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al Askari told McClatchy Newspapers that one of the incidents was former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ahyam al Samarrai's escape from a Green Zone jail in December. Samarrai had been awaiting sentencing on charges that he had embezzled $2.5 billion that was intended to rebuild Iraq's decrepit electricity grid.

Another incident, Askari said, was the shooting death last month of a Baghdad taxi driver when Blackwater guards led a convoy the wrong way down a street. When the taxi driver failed to stop quickly enough as the convoy approached, the Blackwater guards opened fire, Askari said.

Maliki left no doubt that he had already made up his mind about Blackwater's culpability in Sunday's incident, which Blackwater has characterized as an ambush, but which survivors and witnesses have described as an unprovoked shooting spree.

The prime minister said Iraqi citizens were shot in "cold blood."

"This company must be called to account for these violations, because we don't allow them to kill Iraqi citizens in cold blood," he said. "The people and the Iraqi government are filled with anger and hatred after this crime."

U.S. Embassy officials remained silent on the circumstances of Sunday's shooting. Without security details, U.S. officials remained banned from traveling to Iraqi government offices or reconstruction projects outside the heavily protected Green Zone.

"We can't move," said embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo. "It's a situation we're going to be revisiting on a daily basis, and yes, it does have an impact on our operations, but hopefully we will move beyond this fairly soon."

"The embassy can work with the help of other companies" if it wants to continue aid and other programs, Maliki said.

Maliki's mention of other incidents was an indication of how deeply offended many Iraqi officials are by what they believe is the impunity with which Blackwater operates in Iraq. Under a regulation issued by the American authority that governed Iraq until 2004, U.S. security companies and their employees are not subject to Iraqi law.

"All these things are not acceptable," Askari, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said. "The Americans were surprised with the firm opposition from us, which forced the American government to send an apology through (U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice. Maybe this will force them to reassess their work with such companies."

Askari didn't detail each of the seven incidents Maliki mentioned. But his inclusion of the Samarrai escape raised new questions about a strange and little-publicized incident of the war.

Until now, Iraqi officials hadn't named the private security company that they believe helped Samarrai, the only Iraqi cabinet official convicted of corruption, to escape from a jail that was overseen jointly by U.S. and Iraqi guards. He subsequently was spirited out of the country and is believed to be living in the United States.

The U.S. State Department made note of his escape in its December report on developments in Iraq, saying that "Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity (CPI) said they believed he fled with the help of members of a private security company."

But the accusation that Blackwater, which earned at least $240 million in 2005 from contracts to provide security to U.S. officials in Baghdad, assisted in his escape raises questions about what American officials might have known about the breakout.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment.

An off-duty Blackwater guard is also suspected in the December shooting death of a bodyguard assigned to one of Iraq's vice presidents. The guard was returned to the United States and no charges were filed.

Embassy spokeswoman Nantongo said the men involved in Sunday's shooting were still in Iraq and were expected to stay during the investigation.

Askari said that there was little doubt that the Blackwater guards fired first in Sunday's shooting. He said that Iraqi investigators have interviewed witnesses and survivors and that evidence in the investigation included video from cameras at the intersection.

U.S. officials have called the incident an "exchange of fire," and Blackwater said its guards were responding to an attack.

But survivors and witnesses have told McClatchy Newspapers that the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation on a white car carrying a man, woman and child that had tried to edge to the front of traffic that had stopped as the convoy passed. The guards then strafed other stopped cars.

Government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said Sunday's shooting might have been swept under the rug like previous incidents if the death toll hadn't been so high. He estimated that 23 people had been killed, though that number contradicted information from both the defense and interior ministries, which said that 11 had died.

"If this were a small thing, it would have just been incident No. 7," he said. "But the company should be liable for the mistakes that have happened."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed.)