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Iraq pushes for quicker removal of Blackwater

Maliki said to seek withdrawal before 6-month deadline

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pressed US Embassy officials in recent meetings to pull the Blackwater USA security firm out of Iraq even before the six-month deadline he initially set, a top aide to the Iraqi leader said yesterday.

The aide said the Americans responded that they cannot give Maliki an answer until the FBI finishes its inquiry into the event in which Iraqi officials say Blackwater personnel killed 17 Iraqis.

FBI agents on Saturday began questioning survivors and other witnesses to the Sept. 16 shooting by guards in four Blackwater gun trucks. Iraq's government says they opened fire without provocation; the company says the guards responded to an attack.

The State Department also has teams in Iraq looking into what happened. Patrick Kennedy, the department's top management official, is said to be studying whether the agency should continue using Blackwater to provide security.

Maliki's aide, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said an Australian-owned security firm whose employees mistakenly shot and killed two women Oct. 9 does not face eviction from Iraq because it quickly apologized, cooperated with authorities, and offered compensation for the deaths.

Iraq's government is demanding $8 million compensation for each of the 17 people reported killed in the Sept. 16 episode involving Blackwater.

The Maliki aide said the prime minister's office also is drafting legislation that would cancel Decree 17, a measure issued by the former US occupation government that put private security companies outside Iraqi law.

Also yesterday, a roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol and killed at least seven officers near Diwaniyah, in a Shi'ite area south of Baghdad that has seen fierce clashes between Shi'ite factions in recent months.

Violence in the area around Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, also has targeted the US-led coalition. Suspected Shi'ite militiamen fired mortars at two military bases and shot at a Polish helicopter Monday, prompting a battle that killed five civilians and wounded dozens, including two Polish soldiers.

Also yesterday, the military said a US soldier was killed Sunday by small-arms fire south of Baghdad.

In the north, a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck struck a checkpoint manned by Kurdish troops in Diyala province, where US commanders have decided to begin the drawdown of American forces.

The attack killed at least one Kurdish soldier and wounded more than 10, said Jabbar Yawir, a spokesman for Kurdish forces.

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