Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images
A U.S. soldier stands guard at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad on Monday.
A U.S. soldier stands guard at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad on Monday. Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad has halted all ground travel for its diplomats following the Iraqi government's decision to temporarily ban the security company Blackwater USA.
The embassy decision, which suspends all land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, comes amid growing Iraqi outrage with Blackwater. The security company was involved in a shootout on Sunday in which Iraqi officials now say at least 20 civilians were killed.
The move came even as the Iraqi government appeared to back down from statements Monday that it had permanently revoked Blackwater's license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country — depriving American diplomats of security protection essential to operate in Baghdad.
Details of the weekend shootings haven't been released, but The New York Times reported late Tuesday that a preliminary review by Iraq's Ministry of Interior found that violence erupted as Blackwater security guards fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman's call to stop, killing a couple and their infant. The report said that Blackwater helicopters had also fired.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense said that 20 Iraqis were killed, higher than the 11 dead reported earlier.
The newspaper said the report was presented to the Iraqi Cabinet and, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account offered by Blackwater that the guards were responding to militants who had opened fire on State Department personnel. Iraqi police have said a car bomb exploded near a State Department convoy and that Blackwater guards began shooting.
Unlike many deaths blamed on foreign contractors, Sunday's shootings took place in a crowded area in downtown Baghdad with dozens of witnesses.
State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said he had not seen the Iraqi report, reiterating that the department was investigating.
"Let's let these folks do their job and get all the facts. If State Department procedures have not been followed, then at that point we'll assess what actions to take," Vasquez told The Associated Press.
The U.S. order confines most American officials to a 3.5-square-mile area in the center of the city, meaning they cannot visit U.S.-funded construction sites or Iraqi officials elsewhere in the country except by helicopter. The notice did not say when the suspension would expire.
The Iraqi Cabinet decided Tuesday to review the status of all foreign security companies. Still, it was unclear how the dispute would play out given the government's need to appear resolute in defending national sovereignty, while maintaining its relationship with Washington at a time when U.S. public support for the mission is faltering.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press