Iraqi leader urges U.S. to cancel Blackwater contract
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on the U.S. government Wednesday to end its contract with Blackwater USA after a lethal shooting incident this week.
Blackwater employees patrol Baghdad by air in a February 2005 photograph.
Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are banned from leaving the Iraqi capital's Green Zone for a second day after the U.S. government halted all civilian ground movements outside the heavily fortified section.
Iraqi officials have expressed outrage at eyewitness accounts that Blackwater contractors "initiated random and indiscriminate shooting at civilians" Sunday in Baghdad's Mansour area, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf.
The ministry said Wednesday that at least 10 Iraqis were killed and 10 wounded -- all civilians except for a traffic policeman killed while rushing to the aid of a family caught in the crossfire.
U.S. officials have not disclosed any casualty figures. The Blackwater USA contractors were guarding a State Department convoy.
Blackwater has denied the Iraqi government's account of events, saying its contractors "acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack."
The North Carolina-based company added that "the 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire."
Blackwater employees are part of an estimated 25,000-strong corps of private military contractors who protect diplomats, reconstruction workers and government officials in Iraq.
"We see the security firms ... doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them," one Baghdad resident, Halim Mashkoor, told AP Television News.
"If such a thing happened in America or Britain, would the American president or American citizens accept it?" Video Watch why Iraq's Interior Ministry wants to suspend Blackwater's license »
The State Department and U.S. Embassy officials refuse to offer any details on the incident, citing the ongoing investigation. But an initial State Department report said the convoy came under fire from eight to 10 people "from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi police uniforms."
Sources: CNN, The Associated Press
The guards held off the attackers and called for backup, at one point finding their escape route blocked by an Iraqi quick-reaction force that pointed heavy machine guns at one vehicle in the convoy. A U.S. Army force, backed by air cover, arrived about half an hour later to escort the convoy back to the Green Zone, the report said.
At a Wednesday news conference, an Iraqi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, blamed Blackwater for "a number of violations" over the past month, citing reported incidents in two squares in central Baghdad.
On Monday, the Interior Ministry announced it was suspending Blackwater's license and halting the security contractor's operations in Iraq.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a warden's message advising that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad "has suspended official U.S. government civilian ground movements outside the International Zone" -- the formal name of the central Baghdad district that houses the embassy -- "and throughout Iraq."
Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said Wednesday it is not clear if the ban on civilian ground movement applies to the entire country or just Baghdad.
En route to the Middle East for talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described her Monday conversation with al-Maliki regarding the Blackwater episode as "cordial."
Rice said she expressed Washington's regret over the loss of life and "committed to him that we were as interested as the Iraqi government in having a full investigation, a transparent investigation."
She also said the United States was working with the Iraqi government to make sure nothing such as this happens again.
A U.S. congressional report estimates that 200 private security guards have been killed in Iraq.
In one of the more highly publicized incidents, four American Blackwater contractors were mutilated and killed in March 2004 in Falluja, west of Baghdad. Two of their bodies were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River, setting off two battles to reclaim the city from insurgents.
Several major newspapers in the Arab world tackled the Blackwater incident, with some treating it as a major story with accompanying comment pieces.
The London-based, pan-Arab daily papers, like Al Quds Al Arabi and Al Hayat, published the story on their front pages. They focused on Rice's phone call with the Iraqi prime minister and her "personal apology" -- not an official one -- for the incident.
Al Hayat wrote: "In an attempt to apologize for the Iraqis, Condoleezza Rice called the Iraqi minister and apologized personally for the killing of 11 Iraqis, and promised to take action and stop such things."
Al Quds Al Arabi wrote: "A lot of analysts believe that the Iraqi government cannot stop issuing licenses to these companies as they provide security to diplomatic delegations, and a lot of Iraqi officials."
Al Khaleej, based in the United Arab Emirates, accused those behind the incidents of being members of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.