BAGHDAD -- American officials scrambled to head off a potential crisis yesterday after irate Iraqi authorities canceled the license of the American security firm Blackwater USA, whose guards were accused of shooting to death eight civilians while guarding a U.S. State Department motorcade.
The swift response to Sunday's deaths was Iraq's boldest step to assert itself against foreign security contractors who have long been accused of racing through Baghdad's streets and firing without restraint at anyone they see as a threat. It also highlighted the lack of control by American officials over heavily armed private security contractors, at least 20,000 of whom supplement the U.S.-led military forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003.
The ouster of all Blackwater guards here could severely cripple security arrangements for U.S. diplomats and others who rely on private guards to protect them.
But several contractors said yesterday that it was doubtful the Iraqi government would carry through on the threat to expel Blackwater.
"For all intents and purposes, they belong to the [U.S.] Department of State," one contractor said of Blackwater, whose employees have themselves often been the victims of violence, including a gruesome 2004 incident in Fallujah, when four guards were killed and mutilated.
While many details of Sunday's incident remain in dispute, the gravity of the situation was apparent in the reaction of top-level officials in Washington and Baghdad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last night to express regret over the shootings involving the North Carolina-based company that provides most of the security for U.S. embassy personnel traveling around Iraq.
An American embassy spokeswoman stressed that officials wanted to get to the bottom of the incident. "We take this very seriously, and we are launching a full investigation in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities," spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
Iraq's national security adviser, Dr. Mowaffak Rubaie, said the Iraqi government should use the incident to look into overhauling private security guards' immunity from Iraqi courts, which was granted by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer in 2003 and later extended ahead of Iraq's return to sovereignty.
Iraqi Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, accused Blackwater of breaking the law Sunday.
"They committed a crime," said Khalaf. "The judicial system will take action."
It was not immediately clear how Blackwater employees could be prosecuted, given the immunity provisions.
Private security companies expert Peter W. Singer said the case posed a sticky problem for the U.S.
"If [al-Maliki] is already describing this as a crime ... we have a very interesting bridge to cross," said Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. "Do we turn over American citizens to an Iraqi judicial system that is inept, corrupt and now politicized?"
A failure to do so, he said, would undermine the legitimacy of a government the administration is working feverishly to shore up. The incident Sunday was the latest of many in which private security contractors employed by U.S.-led forces have shot and killed Iraqi civilians. Until now, no American security contractor has been prosecuted in the United States or Iraq. This incident is the first in which the Iraqi government has challenged the U.S. over the blanket immunity for foreign private security contractors.
Khalaf said that eight people were killed and 13 wounded when the security convoy went speeding by Nisoor Square at the edge of the Mansour district in western Baghdad. Two Iraqi witnesses said that no one had attacked the convoy.
However, some local Iraqi television accounts reported an exchange of fire at the scene. The U.S. Embassy also said the convoy had come under fire.
Blackwater officials said the convoy had been attacked.
"The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire," said Anne Tyrrell. She said the company would cooperate with any investigation.
"Blackwater regrets any loss of life, but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians," she said, "and our people did their job to defend human life."
Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.