BAGHDAD - The United States yesterday suspended all land travel by US diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, amid mounting public outrage over the alleged killing of civilians by the US Embassy's security provider Blackwater USA.
The move came 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 operating in Baghdad.
"We are not intending to stop them and revoke their license indefinitely but we do need them to respect the law and the regulation here in Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told CNN.
The US order confines most American officials to a 3 1/2-square-mile area in the center of the city, meaning they cannot visit US-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 yesterday 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 US public support for the mission is faltering.
Also yesterday, three US soldiers were killed by an explosion near their patrol northeast of Baghdad, the military said. Another soldier was killed in a vehicle accident in the northern province of Nineveh.
Exploiting public rage over the killings of what police said were 11 civilians by Blackwater guards, anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded that the government ban all 48,000 foreign security contractors.
Sadr's office in Najaf said the government should nullify contracts of all foreign security companies, branding them "criminal and intelligence firms."
"This aggression would not have happened had it not been for the presence of the occupiers who brought these companies, most of whose members are criminals and ex-convicts in American and Western prisons," the firebrand cleric said in a statement.
Sadr insisted that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prosecute those involved and ensure that families of the victims receive compensation.
There was no threat by Sadr to unleash his Mahdi Army militia in retaliation for the killings.
However, his statement was significant because it signaled Sadr's intention to stir anti-American sentiment in the wake of the weekend shootings and further undermine Maliki's US-backed government.
Many Iraqis, who have long viewed security contractors as mercenaries, dismissed Blackwater's contention that its guards were attacked by armed insurgents and returned fire only to protect State Department personnel.
"We see the security firms . . . doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them," Baghdad resident Halim Mashkoor told AP Television News. "If such a thing happened in America or Britain, would the American president or American citizens accept it?"
Blackwater is one of three private security firms employed by the State Department to protect employees in Iraq, and expelling it would create huge problems for US government operations in this country.
The two other firms, both headquartered in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., are Dyncorp, based in Falls Church, Va., and Triple Canopy, based in Herndon, Va. Neither has the resources of Blackwater, which has a fleet of helicopters that provide added security for State Department personnel traveling through Baghdad's dangerous streets.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, who announced the Blackwater ban, said yesterday that the most important issue now is "to find the best ways to put new regulations and conditions by the Interior Ministry on the work of security companies."
A 2004 regulation issued by the US occupation authority granted security contractors full immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Unlike US military personnel, the civilian contractors are not subject to US military law either.