Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Australian security firm's guards kill two women in Iraq

AP AND AFP , BAGHDAD AND WASHINGTON

Guards working for an Australian-owned security company fired on a car as it approached their convoy, killing two women civilians before speeding away in the latest bloodshed blamed on the deadly mix of heavily armed protection details on Baghdad's crowded streets.

The deaths on Tuesday of the two Iraqi Christians -- including one who used the white sedan as an unofficial taxi to raise money for her family -- came a day after the Iraqi government handed US officials a report demanding hefty payments and the ouster from Iraq of embattled Blackwater USA for a chaotic shooting last month that left at least 17 civilians dead.

"We deeply regret this incident," said a statement from Michael Priddin, the chief operating officer of Unity Resources Group, a security company owned by Australian partners but with headquarters in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Priddin said that the company would disclose more details of the shooting after "the facts have been verified and the necessary people and authorities notified."

DWINDLING

Meanwhile, Britain's decision to bring half of its 5,000 troops home from Iraq by spring was the latest blow to the US-led coalition -- but it was not the only one.

The alliance is crumbling, and fast. Half a dozen other members are withdrawing troops or intend to. By the middle of next year, excluding US forces, there will be about 7,000 troops in the multinational force, down from a peak of about 50,000 at the start of the war four-and-a-half years ago.

US troops have already been stretched thin trying to contain Sunni and Shiite extremists. But defense experts say the shrunken coalition would probably not make much of a difference because non-US forces have stuck to limited rules of engagement.

"This is a US and Iraqi coalition -- nothing more and nothing less," said Anthony Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon and now an analyst with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"A British withdrawal and that of other countries really doesn't matter very much. They're playing a very limited role," he said.

EMBASSY WOES

Shoddy construction work, safety lapses, kickbacks, internal disputes and ballooning costs -- the new US embassy complex in Baghdad is mired in a deluge of problems, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the frontline of fire from lawmakers.

Three months after the US State Department told Congress that the world's biggest US embassy would be completed on schedule, officials are now saying that it will be delayed indefinitely, with one report saying by more than a year.

A multitude of questions have been raised over the safety of the complex, budgeted originally at about US$600 million.

Based on inspections conducted days before its scheduled completion, the fire service mains are deficient, there is no reliable automatic fire sprinkler system coverage in any of the compound's 21 buildings and none of the fire alarm detection systems was ready for testing, a State Department report said.

The "entire installation is not acceptable," said the report on the embassy's fire suppression system.

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