BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi official conceded yesterday that expelling a private U.S. company accused in the deaths of at least 11 Iraqis would leave a "security vacuum" and said a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission would look at ways to better regulate companies that protect Western personnel and facilities in Iraq.
The panel is expected to hold its first meeting within days, the U.S. Embassy said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded Wednesday that the embassy find a replacement for Blackwater USA and that the company's activities in Iraq be frozen after Blackwater guards protecting a U.S. convoy were involved in a shooting Sept. 16 in Baghdad. U.S. officials asked him to wait for the results of a joint investigation.
A spokesman for Iraqi security efforts in Baghdad acknowledged yesterday that Blackwater was one of the main companies protecting foreign embassies and said it was not feasible to expel the company, which employs 1,000 people in Iraq.
"If we drive out this company immediately, there will be a security vacuum that would force us to pull troops out of the field to protect these institutes," Tahseen Sheikhly said. "That would cause a big imbalance in the security situation."
Blackwater guards were back on the streets on a limited basis Friday after the embassy eased a temporary ban on road travel by its personnel outside the fortified Green Zone.
Security contractors are a growing presence on the world's battlefields, performing functions that the military cannot or will not handle. In Iraq, there are scores of local and international companies protecting Iraqi government officials, foreign diplomats, humanitarian workers, journalists and others. They also guard embassies, reconstruction projects, military bases and supply convoys.
Iraqi officials, angered by what they describe as an aggressive disregard for Iraqi lives, have long accused the companies of being a law unto themselves. A directive issued by U.S. occupation authorities in 2004 granted foreign security contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq, although cases can be brought under certain circumstances in a U.S. court. Sheikhly said Iraqi courts should be able to try any crime committed on Iraqi soil.
Last week's shooting has strained U.S.-Iraqi relations, which already were marred by U.S. frustration over the slow pace of political reconciliation in the country. Al-Maliki is expected to raise the matter in a meeting with President Bush on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly meeting this week.
At least four separate inquiries have been launched as a result of the incident in Baghdad.
A preliminary investigation by Iraq's Interior Ministry concluded that Blackwater guards fired on civilians without provocation. But the North Carolina-based company has said that its employees were ambushed and responded appropriately.
The embassy is conducting its own investigation and will report its findings to the U.S.-Iraqi commission, embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
The 16-member commission also will look at ways to regulate the scores of private security companies, both foreign and Iraqi, that operate in the country. It will be led by the U.S. charge d'affaires, Patricia Butenis, and Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi .
The U.S. side will include five embassy and three military representatives, Nantongo said. The Iraqi ministries of interior and national security also will be represented.
Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on Friday a Washington-based review of how U.S. officials are protected in Iraq.
She rejected concerns that the separate investigations signaled a lack of trust between the two sides. "I would think the more eyes and ears involved, the better," she said.
In another matter causing friction between Washington and Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman challenged claims that an Iranian detained Thursday was a businessman in Iraq at the government's invitation. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani demanded the man's release Saturday, saying he was part of an official delegation to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.
Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, the spokesman, said the man was a member of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who was smuggling bombs into Iraq.
Iranian officials denied yesterday the U.S. accusations against the detained man.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.