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Interior Ministry Probe of Blackwater USA Grows

Iraq's Interior Ministry has expanded its investigation into incidents involving Blackwater USA security guards amid the furor following a shooting that claimed at least 11 lives, a ministry spokesman said Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the Moyock, N.C.-based company has been implicated in six other incidents over the past seven months, including a Feb. 7 shooting outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad in which three building guards were fatally shot.

Khalaf said other incidents include: a Sept. 9 shooting in front of Baghdad's municipal government building that killed five people and wounded 10; a Sept. 12 shooting that wounded five on the capital's Palestine Street; a Feb. 4 shooting near the Foreign Ministry, in which Iraqi journalist Hana al-Ameedi died; a May shooting near the Interior Ministry that claimed the life of a passer-by and a Feb. 14 incident in which Blackwater employees allegedly smashed windshields by throwing bottles of ice water at cars.

"These six cases will support the case against Blackwater, because they show that it has a criminal record," Khalaf told The Associated Press.

Blackwater USA spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell had no comment when reached by phone Saturday morning.

An Interior Ministry report into the Sept. 16 shooting at Baghdad's Nisoor square has been handed to the country's judiciary, Khalaf added. But it was not clear if Iraqi courts can raise charges against Blackwater, whose personnel enjoy immunity from law here.

The report concluded Blackwater guards were not attacked and initiated the shooting, first killing a driver who had failed to heed a traffic policeman's call to stop. It was based on the testimony of those wounded at Nisoor Square, Iraqi police accounts from the scene and video footage from a camera at the police headquarters nearby, he said.

Iraqi witnesses have said that some victims were fatally shot when they abandoned their vehicles in panic and tried to run or crawl to safety. Blackwater has said its guards were returning fire from insurgents and acted appropriately.

Khalaf has suggested that the guards involved in Sunday's incident should be prosecuted but not the entire company.

According to Khalaf, eight died at the scene and 15 were wounded, three of whom later died in hospital. He said other security companies have "committed violations" in Iraq but all "apologized for these violations, met the families of the victims and compensated them, something Blackwater hasn't done."

The killing outraged many Iraqis, who have long resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is in New York, said he would discuss the case with President Bush next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Authorities in Anbar province, meanwhile, announced the arrests of 25 people linked to the assassination of the leader of the U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni Arab tribesmen in the western Anbar province against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The detainees included the head of the security detail that was supposed to protect Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, killed in a bombing Sept. 13 at his compound near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Jubeir Rashid, an Iraqi police officer in Anbar.

Rashid said Abu Risha's security chief, Capt. Karim al-Barghothi, confessed and said Al Qaeda in Iraq had offered him $1.5 million for the slaying, but he was arrested before he could collect the money.

According to Rashid's account, al-Barghothi allowed a suicide car bomber into the compound minutes before Abu Risha was due to enter. The bomber pretended to be parking but detonated his explosives as the tribal leader's vehicle passed about 20 yards away, Rashid said.

Another suspect confessed to filming the operation, he said.

Maj. Jeff Pool, a U.S. spokesman for American troops in western Iraq said the information was in line with what the military knew about the arrests.

The U.S. military earlier said an Al Qaeda-linked militant -- identified as Fallah Khalifa Hiyas Fayyas al-Jumayli, an Iraqi also known as Abu Khamis -- connected to Abu Risha's death and a plot to kill other tribal leaders, had been arrested during a raid north of Baghdad. Pool said two other suspects were arrested in the raid.

Abu Risha's killing -- just 10 days after his meeting with Bush -- dealt a blow to one of the few success stories in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. The tribal leader brought together Anbar sheiks into an alliance against extremists, after years of American failure to tame flash points such as Ramadi and Fallujah.

Two other bodyguards as well as some of Abu Risha's neighbors also had been detained, Iraqi police said. Al Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the assassination.

Elsewhere Saturday, gunmen ambushed an Iraqi police checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding five others, according to authorities. A civilian also was killed in Khalis, a Shiite enclave near Baqouba in the volatile Diyala province, when gunmen opened fire on his car.

U.S. troops killed seven suspected insurgents and detained an operative believed to have knowledge about the whereabouts of Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders south of Baghdad, the military said.

The military said seven militants were killed and weapons and military-style assault vests were found at the site in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.

The troops also detained 12 suspected insurgents, including a militant believed to have been responsible for the movement of senior Al Qaeda in Iraqi leaders and to have extensive knowledge of their whereabouts, the military said.

An Al Qaeda umbrella group in Iraq posted a video recording on showing the killing of five kidnapped Iraqi army officers.

The footage, posted by the Islamic State of Iraq, shows a masked gunman shooting the blindfolded officers in the back of the head with a pistol. The officers' hands are bound behind their backs during the shooting.