Blackwater Case Could Lead to Change in Laws

The question of who monitors security companies in Iraq takes on new urgency after a fatal shooting involving Blackwater USA guards. Laws governing foreign security companies may be changed as a result of Iraqi anger over the incident.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Who monitors the security companies? That question has taken on a new urgency in Iraq since one week ago today. That's when employees of Blackwater USA were involved in a shooting in Baghdad, at least eight Iraqis were killed. Blackwater says its guards fired in response to an attack. But Iraqi say the shooting was unprovoked.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation into the incident is underway, but Iraq's government has already concluded that Blackwater guards are guilty of a criminal act.

NPR's Anne Garrels is in the Iraqi capital.

Anne, what's the best picture now we have of what happened in Baghdad's Nissor Square one week ago today?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, Blackwater guards were accompanying a convoy carrying U.S. diplomats in Mansour, and area known for insurgent attacks. In its only public comment so far is you indicated Blackwater said it responded to an ambush. The U.S. embassy says its guards were responding to a car bomb. Iraq's prime minister had said, the bomb was so far away. That could not possibly have been a reasonable reason for the response the guards gave.

Blackwater armored vehicles raced into the packed square to close off traffic. A car failed to heed an Iraqi policeman signal to stop, it came under fire: the driver, a passenger and a baby were killed. The Iraqi government says Blackwater started the shooting.

Some witnesses have said Iraqi army soldiers nearby also began firing at some point, complicating efforts to establish exactly what happened and who killed whom. But to bolster their case against Blackwater, Iraqi officials have laid out a series of episodes over the past seven months in which they say Blackwater acted without justification.

HANSEN: What are the kinds of actions they're specify?

GARRELS: They include a series of actions. They include a February 4th shooting that killed an Iraqi journalist near the Foreign Ministry. A February 7th shooting in which three guards at Iraqi state television were killed. A shooting in May that killed one near the Interior Ministry and two shooting this month before the Nissor Square incident in which five civilians were killed.

HANSEN: How does Blackwater typically operate?

GARRELS: Well, they're heavily armed, they escort diplomats in a convoy of armored SUV's, sometimes even using their own helicopters with armed guards overhead as extra protection. Now, no one disputes travel outside the Green Zone is extremely dangerous, given road side bombs, suicide attacks, you name it. But other security companies ask why is that Blackwater shoot so quickly? Blackwater in the past has defended its aggressive stance noting no American diplomats have been killed. Iraqi civilians though say, Blackwater races through the streets and doesn't give anyone in its path a chance to respond.

HANSEN: There are rules of engagement for the military there. Are there rules of engagement for the Blackwater guards?

GARRELS: Well, they come under State Department rules which state that Blackwater's supposed to be defensive in nature with the contractors responding with a graduated use of force proportionate to whatever attacks they come under. Blackwater is not subject to U.S. military oversight or Iraqi law, and the company has worked under a provision - an act that here in the early days of the occupation which effectively gives companies working for the U.S. government immunity from prosecution.

HANSEN: The Iraqi government initially banned Blackwater, now the company is escorting U.S. diplomats again. How do you interpret this turn of events?

GARRELS: Well it just shows how delicate and difficult the situation is. I mean the Iraqi government is under huge public pressure to reign in foreign security companies but the State Department argues back, it needs protection. As a compromise for now, Blackwater is only escorting diplomats on urgent missions, so diplomatic activity is pretty limited.

Just how this is all going to be resolve is still very much up on the air, though Iraqi officials say they're going to prosecute Blackwater, other officials can see they can't under current laws. But I think one outcome is likely laws governing foreign security companies will be changed with some Iraqi officials now demanding Iraqi companies take over from companies like Blackwater.

HANSEN: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Anne, thanks a lot.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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