Iraq

Iraq Pulls Blackwater's License for Security Work

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Iraqi authorities have revoked the U.S. security firm Blackwater's license to work in Iraq, but the impact of the move is unclear. Over the weekend, Blackwater personnel guarding a convoy opened fire, reportedly killing nine civilians and wounding at least 15 others.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Iraqi government says it is revoking the license of the private security firm Blackwater. The American company was allegedly involved in the fatal shooting of nine Iraqi civilians this weekend. The U.S. Embassy confirms that the incident took place and calls the loss of life regrettable. Blackwater has issued a statement saying its employees acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a violent attack. And the Office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, says today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered an apology to the prime minister by telephone and they agreed the incident will be investigated.

BLOCK: NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad.

And Anne, tell us a bit more about what happened over the weekend.

ANNE GARRELS: Well, Blackwater, first of all, among its many security contracts, protects American diplomats. Yesterday, in the Mansour district of Baghdad, there was some kind of attack near a State Department convoy. Iraqi officials cite mortars and small arms fire. The U.S. Embassy says there was a car bomb near a place where State Department personnel were holding a meeting.

Anyway, in response, Blackwater guards engaged in a lengthy gun battle. The Iraqi interior ministry alleges they shot wildly and irresponsibly, killing nine and wounding 15. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called it a crime. The company itself has had no comment.

In the past, though, Blackwater has proudly said it's never lost a client here in Iraq. And no American diplomats were injured yesterday. I'll just point out that I think more than two dozen Blackwater employees have been killed here over the past four years.

BLOCK: And Anne, when the Iraqi government talks about revoking Blackwater's license, what does that mean? And do they have the power to do that?

GARRELS: That's not clear at all. It's not clear that the Iraqi government has any authority over Blackwater or that Blackwater has had to have a license to operate here. In the past, Blackwater has explained its position saying it operates as part of the U.S. forces in Iraq, and as such, says the company, can't be prosecuted by the Iraqi government. But on the other hand, they are civilians and the military has no legal authority over them. This has led to a lot of frustration within the military, with officers feeling they're blamed for contractors over whom they have no authority.

Peter Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors," once said an owner of a circus faces more regulation and inspection than a private military company here in Iraq.

BLOCK: We mentioned that Blackwater has the contract to guard embassy staff. How visible a presence are they in Baghdad?

GARRELS: They're quite visible. Large convoys, SUVs, and they have their own fleet of helicopters as well. And they have a reputation for being really tough. When they're on the streets, people back off.

BLOCK: Anne, have there been other controversies that Blackwater has been involved in there?

GARRELS: Several. Iraqi officials told me today that they received at least six previous complaints of shooting incidents specifically involving Blackwater in the past couple of years. The most infamous was when a Blackwater contractor was apparently drunk in the Green Zone. He got into an altercation with a guard for Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi. He shot and killed that guard. The American left the country and was never prosecuted. This absolutely enraged Iraqi officials. And so today's reaction is frankly not altogether unexpected.

BLOCK: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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