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Blackwater raises tensions

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. Embassy ordered civilian government employees to remain inside the heavily protected Green Zone indefinitely, while American and Iraqi officials debated the legal status of foreign security contractors after a weekend shooting incident in which eight civilians were reported killed.

The Iraqi government announced yesterday that its initial investigation determined that Blackwater USA guards fired without provocation on Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle Sunday. The account contradicted statements by the North Carolina-based security company and the State Department that the guards had come under small-arms fire.

Iraqi authorities said they will act to overhaul the nation's laws to end the immunity of foreign contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts, a protection set up by occupation officials after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The confrontation could prove a test of the sovereign powers of the Iraqi government when it clashes with American officials over prickly subjects such as its dependence on private security contractors, whom many Iraqis loathe after repeated episodes of wild shooting, reckless driving and abusive behavior.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh insisted yesterday that Blackwater guards should be held accountable for the killings, which occurred while the security detail was assigned to protect a State Department motorcade.

"They should not have immunity for their mistakes," he said. "If they have made a mistake, they should be subjected to the law."

With Iraqi public opinion inflamed by the deaths, including that of a young child, the U.S. Embassy issued a brief statement late yesterday barring civilian employees from leaving the Green Zone -- home to most American officials in Baghdad -- or other areas of Iraq not guarded by the U.S. military.

Several U.S. diplomats described the freeze, even if it proved short-lived, as a strong blow to the embassy's work in Iraq.

"People have to get out. There is no point of having a diplomatic mission in a country if you don't get out," one U.S. diplomat said.

The freeze on travel came despite recent American military statements that attacks in Iraq were down as result of the seven-month buildup of U.S. troops.

"This suspension is in effect in order to assess mission security and procedures, as well as to assess a possible increased threat to personnel traveling with security details outside the International Zone," the statement said.

Embassy officials did not further explain the need for a freeze, nor did they directly address details of Sunday's incident or the future role of Blackwater, which employs about 1,000 people in Iraq.

However, U.S. officials insisted they were in close coordination with the Iraqi government on the investigation.

"We are pursuing discussions with the Iraqi government at the highest levels," said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo. "Part of the discussions is what structure and form the investigation will take."

Iraqi spokesman Dabbagh said Blackwater would be able to work in Iraq once the shooting incident was resolved, an apparent conciliatory gesture after the Interior Ministry said Monday that Blackwater's license was canceled.

Ned Parker, Peter Spiegel and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.

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