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Probe launched in women's deaths

As 2 mourned, Iraqis question security firm

A sibling of Marou Awanis, one of two women killed Tuesday in Baghdad by members of a private security firm, mourned during a funeral service in Baghdad yesterday. A sibling of Marou Awanis, one of two women killed Tuesday in Baghdad by members of a private security firm, mourned during a funeral service in Baghdad yesterday. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

BAGHDAD - Iraqi officials demanded answers yesterday from representatives of an Australian-owned security company, as the government appeared determined to curb perceived excesses by heavily armed guards accused of killing nearly 20 Iraqi civilians in less than a month.

The scrutiny of the firm, Unity Resources Group, began a day after its guards gunned down two Iraqi Christian women in their car and nearly a month after 17 Iraqis died in a hail of bullets fired by Blackwater USA contractors at a busy Baghdad intersection.

Officials in the tight-knit world of security operatives in Baghdad said Blackwater was preparing a reorganization and possible downsizing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The company, based in Moyock, N.C., does not speak publicly about its operations or plans.

At a funeral service in Baghdad's Armenian Orthodox Virgin Mary church, the Rev. Kivork Arshlian urged the government to punish those responsible for Tuesday's killings despite the immunity that has generally been enjoyed by foreign security contractors in Iraq.

"This is a crime against humanity in general and against Iraqis in particular. Many other people were killed in a similar way," he said. "We call upon the government to put an end to these killings."

His comments reflected the growing anger against the private security companies - nearly all based in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries - as symbols of the lawlessness in this country since the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The shooting in central Baghdad on Tuesday by guards firing from a Unity Resources Group convoy only deepened troubles for the foreign security industry in Iraq. The two Armenian Christian women died when their white Oldsmobile was targeted by two Unity guards as the convoy was returning to one of its facilities in the Karradah district.

Witnesses and police said it appeared that the driver was trying to stop when the shooting began.

"We cannot say the guards shot at random, but we rather say that they used deadly force in a situation where they shouldn't have," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "The preliminary investigation has shown that there was no threat to the convoy. The families of the victims will be summoned according to the legal procedures. They can file a law suit against the security company."

Unity's chief operating officer, Michael Priddin, said company officials had "been meeting with Iraqi authorities throughout the day and are cooperating with their investigations."

"The security team used graduated and escalated responses which included nonlethal means such as signage, strobe lights, hand signals, and a signal flare fired in front of the vehicle in an effort to get it to stop," Priddin said in a statement last night. "The vehicle did not heed these warnings and failed to halt. Fearing a suicide attack, only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle."

The Unity executive said, "We deeply regret the loss of these lives."

A US military spokesman, Major General Kevin Bergner, said Unity was "working with the Diplomatic Security Service here at the embassy and with the government of Iraq . . . to be accountable and to investigate fully what happened."

Unity, owned by Australian partners but with headquarters in the United Arab Emirates, provides protection for USAID contractor RTI International.

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