The State Department offered Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution as part of a probe of last month's killing of 17 Iraqi civilians — an agreement that the Iraqi government is now seeking to overturn.
As more details of the immunity pact emerged Tuesday, the Iraqi government approved draft legislation lifting immunity for foreign private security companies and sent the measure to parliament, a spokesman said.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the draft law approved Tuesday would overturn an immunity order known as Decree 17 that was issued by L. Paul Bremer, who ran the American occupation government until June 2004.
NPR on Tuesday confirmed the immunity deal stemming from the Sept. 16 killings, which could jeopardize any prosecution of security contractors for their alleged role in the shootings that have infuriated the Iraqi government.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd and FBI spokesman Rich Kolko declined to confirm such a deal.
The Associated Press reported that FBI agents were returning to Washington from Baghdad, where they had been trying to collect evidence in the Sept. 16 embassy convoy shooting without using statements from Blackwater employees who were given immunity.
Three senior law enforcement officials told the AP that all the Blackwater bodyguards involved — both in the vehicle convoy and in at least two helicopters above — were given the legal protection as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.
The law enforcement and State Department officials agreed to speak only if they could remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the inquiry into the incident.
The investigative misstep comes in the wake of already-strained relations between the United States and Iraq, which is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined comment about the U.S. investigation. Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater USA is the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
The company has said its Sept. 16 convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis.
A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater's men were unprovoked. No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.
An initial incident report by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated "no enemy activity involved" in the Sept. 16 incident. The report says Blackwater guards were traveling against the flow of traffic through a traffic circle when they "engaged five civilian vehicles with small arms fire" at a distance of 50 meters.
The FBI took over the case early this month, officials said, after prosecutors in the Justice Department's criminal division realized it could not bring charges against Blackwater guards based on their statements to the Diplomatic Security investigators.
Officials said the Blackwater bodyguards spoke only after receiving so-called "Garrity" protections, requiring that their statements only be used internally — and not for criminal prosecutions.
At that point, the Justice Department shifted the investigation to prosecutors in its national security division, sealing the guards' statements and attempting to build a case based on other evidence from a crime scene that was then already two weeks old.
The FBI has re-interviewed some of the Blackwater employees, and one official said Monday that at least several of them have refused to answer questions, citing their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Any statements that the guards give to the FBI could be used to bring criminal charges.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press