US security company faces criminal charges in Iraq
Firm may also see probe into its shipments
BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government expects to refer criminal charges to the Iraqi courts within days in a shooting by a private American security company, the state minister for national security affairs said yesterday.
The minister, Shirwan al-Waili, said the government had received little information from the American side of a joint investigation. But he said that the Iraqi investigation of the shooting, in which at least eight Iraqis were killed, was largely completed and that he believed the findings were definitive.
"The shots fired on the Iraqis were unjustifiable," he said. "It was harsh and horrible."
Iraqi investigators obtained a videotape allegedly showing that employees of the security company, Blackwater USA, opened fire on the civilians without provocation, the Associated Press reported, citing a senior Iraqi official. The footage was taken by cameras at the national police command, near Nisour Square in western Baghdad, where the shooting occurred.
Although Waili did not spell out what the investigative committee would recommend to the Iraqi criminal court, a preliminary report by the Interior Ministry, National Security Ministry, and Defense Ministry stated that "the murder of citizens in cold blood in the Nisour area by Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against civilians just like any other terrorist operations."
There were reports that Blackwater USA was also facing a possible federal investigation in the United States into whether the company shipped unlicensed automatic weapons and military goods to Iraq.
The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., reported that two former Blackwater employees had pleaded guilty to weapons charges in North Carolina, where the company is based, and were cooperating with federal officials in the broader investigation.
Last week, the Democratic chairman of a House committee mentioned the federal investigation in a letter critical of the actions of the State Department's inspector general, Howard J. Krongard.
In the letter, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said a federal prosecutor had asked State Department investigators for help in looking into whether "a large private security contractor working for the State Department was illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq."
Blackwater yesterday rebutted allegations that it had done anything wrong. It said it had uncovered thefts by two employees, who were then fired.
The company said that it notified the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives about the incident and that the two former employees have been convicted and are now "negotiating sentencing in Raleigh with federal prosecutors."
The statement added that the "issue is completely unrelated to Blackwater US government programs in Iraq." It said "the company has no knowledge of any employee improperly exporting weapons."
The shooting under investigation in Iraq occurred near midday Sept. 16 when guards for Blackwater fired at Iraqi civilians for reasons that neither the company nor the US government, which is also investigating, have not yet fully explained. Blackwater provides security for US diplomatic personnel in Baghdad.
Some witnesses have said that Iraqi Army soldiers also began firing at some point during the event, greatly complicating the interpretation of what happened and raising the question, at least among US officials, of whether the Blackwater guards believed they were under attack and may have acted properly.
Blackwater, in its only statement so far on the shooting, has said its employees were responding to an ambush.
Iraqi government officials indicated that they were weighing earlier shootings involving Blackwater in their consideration of what the practical consequences of the Nisour Square shooting should be.
Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the ministry was looking into six other fatal shootings involving the Moyock, N.C.-based company in which 10 Iraqis were killed and 15 wounded, the AP reported.
"The American Blackwater company has made for the seventh time the same mistake against the Iraqis and in different places in Baghdad," according to a preliminary report from the Iraqi investigation.
No results of the US investigation have yet been made public. For that reason, US officials have privately cautioned against drawing early conclusions.
In addition, a US Embassy official said that while the American investigation was progressing, embassy activities had been slowed because convoys protected by Blackwater guards had been temporarily stopped because of the shooting.
More trouble in diplomacy came yesterday, when President Jalal al-Talabani expressed his anger at the detention of a man he said was an Iranian diplomat. Agai Mahummdi Firhadi was arrested by the US military on Thursday in northern Iraq.
A statement from the president's office said Talabani had "sent a message of anger," to the US ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, and the US military commander, General David H. Petraeus, because the Iranian had been on a diplomatic delegation.
The US military had said in a statement at the time that he had been involved in transporting bombs and explosives into Iraq, and in training militants.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.