BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government said Tuesday it would review the status of private security companies as anger over the alleged involvement of Blackwater USA in a fatal shooting of civilians threatened to spread to other firms providing protection for dignitaries and Westerners on Iraq's chaotic streets.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for all contracts of foreign securities firms to be annulled and blamed the government for failing to protect Iraqis, noting the shootings occurred on a busy square filled with Iraqi troops.
"This aggression wouldn't have happened had it not been for the presence of the occupiers who brought these companies," al-Sadr's political committee said in a statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf.
It also called for a speedy investigation, the referral of those involved to the Iraqi justice system and compensation for families of the victims.
A series of bombings, meanwhile, ripped through Baghdad, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens, police said.
The developments came a day after the government announced it was ordering Blackwater, the North Carolina-based security firm that protects U.S. diplomats, to leave the country after what it said was the fatal shooting of eight Iraqi civilians following a car bomb attack against a State Department convoy.
Amid allegations that the foreign security contractors operate with impunity, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Cabinet held a meeting Tuesday and confirmed that "it is necessary to review the status of local and foreign private security companies working in Iraq according to what is suitable with Iraqi laws."
Al-Dabbagh also said the Cabinet supported the Interior Ministry's decision to withdraw Blackwater's license, expedite an investigation and ensure all those who attacked civilians were held accountable.
"The company should respect Iraqi laws and the dignity of the citizens," al-Dabbagh said in a statement released by his office.
Order No. 17, a law issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq before the Iraqis regained sovereignty in June 2004, gave the companies immunity from Iraqi prosecution.
Hassan al-Rubaie, a member of the parliament's Security and Defense Committee, said an investigative committee has been formed and members would consider abolishing the immunity law.
"There are reports that they were subjected to fire but this does not give them the right to kill innocent civilians," he said.
Blackwater said the company had not been formally notified of any expulsion.
"Blackwater's independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday," spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said in a statement late Monday.
"The `civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire," she said. "Blackwater regrets any loss of life but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life."
But Sunday's shooting has touched a nerve among Iraqis already angered over the presence of so many visible, aggressive Western security contractors, whom many consider part of a mercenary force that runs roughshod over people in their own country.
It was the latest in a series of incidents in which Blackwater and other foreign contractors have been accused of shooting to death Iraqi citizens. None has faced charges or prosecution.
The events in Mansour also illustrate the challenge of trying to protect U.S. officials in a city where car bombs can explode at any time, and where gunmen blend in with the civilian population.
In one of the most horrific attacks of the war, four Blackwater employees were ambushed and killed in Fallujah in 2004 and their charred bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned al-Maliki late Monday and the two agreed to conduct a fair and transparent investigation.
The U.S. clearly hoped the Iraqis would be satisfied with an investigation, a finding of responsibility and compensation to the victims' families — and not insist on expelling a company that the Americans cannot operate here without.
Details of Sunday's incident were unclear.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said eight civilians were killed and 13 were wounded when contractors believed to be working for Blackwater USA opened fire on civilians in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Mansour in western Baghdad.
"We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory. We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities," Khalaf said.
He said witness reports pointed to Blackwater involvement but added that the shooting was still under investigation. One witness, Hussein Abdul-Abbas, said the explosion was followed by about 20 minutes of heavy gunfire and "everybody in the street started to flee immediately."
U.S. officials said the motorcade was traveling through Nisoor Square on the way back to the Green Zone when the car bomb exploded, followed by volleys of small-arms fire that disabled one of the vehicles but caused no American casualties.
American officials refused to explain the legal authority under which Blackwater operates in Iraq or say whether the company was complying with the order. It also was unclear whether the contractors involved in the shooting were still in Iraq.
The deadliest attack on Tuesday was a car bombing that occurred in a parking lot near the Health Ministry and a medical complex in central Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 23.
Another parked car bomb targeted a police patrol in Palestine Street, killing two civilians and wounding six.
A parked car bomb also struck a busy market in northern Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 26.
Maitham Mustafa, 27, who has a kiosk about 150 yards away from the blast, was wounded by broken glass.
"The explosion was so powerful. It took place a few minutes before midday prayers," he said, his clothes soaked with blood as he helped evacuate victims. "We rushed to the site and we saw a car on fire, pieces of flesh were scattered and there were pools of blood on the street."
Two roadside bombs also killed a policeman and two civilians and wounded eight other people in separate attacks in predominantly Shiite areas of eastern Baghdad. The violence was reported by police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.