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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Iraq, growing outrage over the actions of the security contractor Blackwater USA. The Iraqi government now says at least 20 civilians were killed this past Sunday in an incident in Baghdad. Blackwater says it was acting defensively, protecting a diplomatic convoy. But today, Iraq's prime minister called the company's actions a crime.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS: A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is to investigate Sunday's shootings, but Nouri al-Maliki isn't waiting for the results.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) We will never allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood by this company, which doesn't care about the lives of Iraqis.

GARRELS: The spokesman for Iraqi military operations in Baghdad added this is just the latest incident in which Blackwater has targeted innocent people. He cited two similar incidents in just the past month. As if the lid of silence was suddenly broken, Iraqi officials point to many more incidents over the past few years. Blackwater was once able to explain away shootings of Iraqi civilians, saying they were acting in self-defense. But today, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo acknowledged those explanations are no longer good enough.

Ms. MIREMBE NANTONGO (Spokesperson, U.S. Embassy, Iraq): We are working extremely closely with our Iraqi counterparts to find a solution to this issue, which, as you point out, has been one that has come up in the past.

GARRELS: The U.S. Embassy and Blackwater maintain the security company responded on Sunday to a car bomb near a diplomatic convoy. The prime minister's office acknowledges there was a bomb, but says it was so far away it could not have been a legitimate reason for Blackwater guards to respond as they did. Instead, Iraqi officials say the contractors started shooting wildly when a driver mistakenly entered a traffic circle at the same time as the convoy.

NPR witnessed a similar incident two years ago. A State Department convoy, protected by Blackwater, raced out of a compound. Guards immediately shot at the car killing an old man, his son and his daughter-in-law. Blackwater later said the car had been driving erratically. A U.S. military investigation concluded Blackwater had used excessive force. No one was prosecuted. Indeed, no security contractors have ever been prosecuted.

Sunday's incident seems to have been the final straw, not just for Iraq's prime minister, but for the public. Outrage is bubbling on the streets.

Karim Muhammed(ph), who owns a furniture store, says he's seen people killed by foreign security companies. He says Iraqi officials should have done something about this a long time ago.

Mr. KARIM MUHAMMED (Furniture Store Owner): (Through translator) Why do they consider American blood first class and ours a cheap commodity? Are they better than us?

GARRELS: Samir Samir(ph) says he fears the private security companies far more than the U.S. military.

Mr. SAMIR SAMIR: (Through translator) The U.S. military is subject to its own laws and monitoring. Who monitors the security companies?

(Soundbite of car honking)

GARRELS: A traffic policeman working in downtown Baghdad, who asked not to be named, says he believes security companies shoot fast and freely. So he desperately tries to clear the streets in front of them to save Iraqi lives.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) I have to empty the streets for them; otherwise, they would harm people.

GARRELS: Blackwater personnel are still in the country, but for now they are not escorting U.S. diplomats. This means diplomats are, in effect, stuck in the four-mile-square-fortified Green Zone. Just what legal measures can be taken against Blackwater remain unclear. It has operated outside Iraqi law, a privilege extended while Iraq was still under American administration. But Prime Minister Maliki wants Blackwater out.

Prime Minister AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) The embassy can use other companies.

GARRELS: In any event, Maliki says U.S. and Iraqi officials are working together to revise the old laws to make sure foreign security companies are accountable in the future.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

SIEGEL: In this country, members of Congress are looking at ways to control private security firms in war zones. You can read about those proposed measures at npr.org.

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