Contractors kill civilians in Baghdad

INDISCRIMINATE: Many security contractors, which number in the tens of thousands, have been criticized for firing at US and Iraqi troops, and for shooting Iraqis to death


Tue, Sep 18, 2007 - Page 7

Iraq's interior ministry has ordered a probe into a shootout in Baghdad involving a US diplomatic convoy which killed at least eight people and wounded 13, a senior official said yesterday.

The ministry's director of operations Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf said the probe was ordered by "the interior minister [Jawad al-Bolani] himself."

Iraqi security officials said a US convoy came under attack on Sunday while it was travelling past al-Nissur Square in the al-Yarmukh neighborhood of west Baghdad.

The private security contractors accompanying the convoy returned fire.

According to the security officials, nine people were killed and 15 wounded but Khalaf confirmed eight people dead, including a policeman, and 13 wounded.

Most of the dead and wounded were bystanders, the officials said.

Khalaf was not able to confirm that a US motorcade was involved but on Sunday a US embassy official said there had been an exchange of fire involving a diplomatic convoy.

"A US Department of State motorcade came under fire in Baghdad. There was escalation of force. The incident is under investigation," the official said without giving details of casualties.

Witness Mohammed Hussein said his brother was among those killed in the shootout.

"I was driving behind my brother's car and suddenly there was an explosion and firing. I tried to figure out what was happening when I saw a black convoy ahead of us," Hussein said.

"Soon after I saw my brother slump in the car. I dragged him out of the car and tried to hide to avoid the firing but realized that he had been shot in the chest and was already dead," he said.

A traffic policeman who was at al-Nissur Square said he had seen his colleague die in the street after being hit during the firefight.

"There was an explosion and then I heard shooting. My colleague was killed on the road while I ran to save myself in a nearby lane," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

There are tens of thousands of private security contractors, including many Americans and Britons, operating in Iraq to offer protection for Westerners and dignitaries as the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war.

They are equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bulletproof vehicles and operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them.

Many contractors have been accused of indiscriminately firing at US and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys, but not one has faced charges or prosecution.

The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented -- as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers. They protect US military operations and have guarded high-ranking officials including General David Petraeus, the US commander in Baghdad. They also protect journalists, visiting foreign officials and thousands of construction projects.