Blackwater incident referred to Iraqi magistrate

BAGHDAD — Iraq's Interior Ministry has completed its investigation of last weekend's shooting incident involving Blackwater USA security guards and has referred the case to a magistrate to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, a spokesman said Friday.

Abdel Karim Khalaf, the ministry spokesman, said the evidence collected in the case, in which 11 people died and 12 were wounded, includes videotape from nearby cameras. That tape indicates that the Blackwater guards fired first and weren't responding to an attack, as Blackwater has claimed, Khalaf said.

It's unclear what would happen if the magistrate decided to press charges in an Iraqi criminal court. Khalaf said the Interior Ministry would push to have the Blackwater guards face charges in Iraq, but current law exempts foreign security companies and their employees from Iraqi jurisdiction.

The Interior Ministry report also may be trumped by a U.S.-Iraqi commission charged with investigating the case. That commission is headed jointly by Iraq's defense minister, Abdel Qadr al Obaidi, a Sunni Muslim, and Patricia Butenis, the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats resumed limited trips outside the Green Zone, apparently accompanied by Blackwater security guards. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced "a full and complete review" of the use of security escorts in Iraq.

Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the decision to resume trips outside the Green Zone, which the embassy suspended on Tuesday, was made in consultation with the Iraqi government. While she declined to say so explicitly, she said it was "likely" that Blackwater was providing security for the trips.

"There is limited mobility for essential missions only," she said.

Khalaf said none of the guards involved in Sunday's shooting were involved in providing security Friday. Nantongo said all of the guards involved in Sunday's shooting remain in Iraq.

U.S. diplomatic operations rely heavily on Blackwater, which provides gunmen to protect vehicles carrying U.S. officials and often uses helicopters to fly along a convoy's route.

"It is very difficult to imagine our being able to do our work right now without these kind of" private security contractors, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Senior State Department officials in Washington said the department's review would cover such issues as when security contractors can use their weapons, what operations they should be involved in and what laws apply to them.

McCormack said Rice ordered the review completed within weeks and that it would cover all "protective service details" provided by contractors in Iraq, not just Blackwater. Two other firms, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, also provide security in Iraq under State Department contracts. Blackwater's contracts to provide security for embassy officials and others are valued at $678 million.

Rice had supportive words for Blackwater at a news conference. "We have needed and received the protection of Blackwater for a number of years now, and they have lost their own people in protecting our own people — and that needs to be said," she said.

But Blackwater also has generated anger among many Iraqis who feel that the firm's employees are unnecessarily aggressive and have killed innocent Iraqis. On Friday, a prominent Shiite cleric in Najaf denounced Blackwater in his sermon.

"The United States and the U.S. secretary of state apologized for the incident, and the Iraqi government formed an investigation committee to study the crime and to prevent the company from working," said Sadr al Deen al Qubbanchi, the imam at the Fatimiya mosque. "But is an apology enough for us? Who will punish them? No one."

Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf said the file referred to the magistrate includes details from six other incidents in which Blackwater is accused of using excessive force.

According to Khalaf, they included:

_ A Sept. 13 incident in which Blackwater guards shot out storefronts at the busy al Khilani intersection near the Green Zone, apparently in response to what they thought might have been a sniper in a nearby building.

_ The wounding of five people on Palestine Street on Sept. 12.

_ The shooting death on May 24 of a taxi driver who was caught off guard and didn't stop immediately when a Blackwater convoy drove into oncoming traffic.

_ The shooting of three Iraqi guards at the Iraqiya State Television station on Feb. 7 by a Blackwater sniper in the building across the street.

_ The Feb. 2 death of a female Iraqiya reporter who was shot near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Khalaf said that the escape of former Electricity Minister Ayham Sammari from a Green Zone jail, where he was awaiting sentencing on charges that he embezzled $2.5 billion, wasn't included among the charges. A Defense Ministry spokesman said Wednesday that Blackwater had engineered that escape, but Khalaf said the Interior Ministry believes a different security firm was involved.

Also missing from recent incidents attributed to Blackwater was the December death of a bodyguard for Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi. The Blackwater guard said to have fired the shot was whisked to the United States, and no charges have been filed against him.

U.S. and Blackwater officials have provided differing accounts of what started Sunday's violence. Blackwater said in a statement Monday that its employees were responding to hostile fire when they began shooting. The embassy has said that there was an "exchange of gunfire" in which innocent lives were lost and that the guards were reacting to a car bomb.

But none of five witnesses interviewed by McClatchy Newspapers saw shots fired at the four-vehicle convoy, and the only car bomb in the area near the time of the shooting was about a mile and a half away.

The witnesses indicated that the shooting began when a white car carrying a man, woman and an infant tried to nudge into the front of traffic that had been stopped for the U.S. convoy, which had entered the busy traffic roundabout. Blackwater guards fired at the driver, killing him, the witnesses said, then fired a grenade or other explosive device, which set the car on fire, killing the woman and the child.

The guards then began firing at other cars. One driver told McClatchy Newspapers that he tried to escape by driving against traffic, only to be fired upon by Iraqi troops, who thought he might be a car bomber. The man was shot eight times, but survived and was interviewed at the hospital.

Five policemen were among the dead, witnesses said.

(Fadel reported from Baghdad, Strobel from Washington. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad contributed.)