BAGHDAD – Iraqi investigators have a videotape that shows Blackwater USA guards opened fire against civilians without provocation in an incident last week in which 11 people died, a senior Iraqi official said Saturday. He said the case had been referred to the Iraqi judiciary.
Iraq's president, meanwhile, demanded that the Americans release an Iranian arrested this week on suspicion of smuggling weapons to Shiite militias. The demand adds new strains to U.S.-Iraqi relations only days before a meeting between President Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Iraqi authorities had completed an investigation into the Sept. 20 shooting in Nisoor Square in western Baghdad and concluded that Blackwater guards were responsible for the deaths.
He told The Associated Press that the conclusion was based on witness statements as well as videotape shot by cameras at the nearby headquarters of the national police command. He said eight people were killed at the scene and three of the 15 wounded died in hospitals.
Blackwater, which provides most of the security for U.S. diplomats and civilian officials in Iraq, has insisted that its guards came under fire from armed insurgents and shot back only to defend themselves.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Saturday that she knew nothing about the videotape and was contractually prohibited from discussing any details of the shooting.
Khalaf also said the ministry was looking into six other fatal shootings involving the Moyock, N.C.-based company, including a Feb. 7 incident outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad in which three building guards were fatally shot.
"These six cases will support the case against Blackwater, because they show that it has a criminal record," Khalaf said.
Khalaf said the report had been "sent to the judiciary" although he would not specify whether that amounted to filing of criminal charges. Under Iraqi law, an investigating judge reviews criminal complaints and decides whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Saturday that no decision had been taken whether to seek punishment for any Blackwater employees.
"The necessary measures will be taken that will preserve the honor of the Iraqi people," he said in New York, where al-Maliki arrived Friday for the U.N. General Assembly session. "We have ongoing high-level meetings with the U.S. side about this issue."
Al-Maliki is expected to raise the issue with Bush during a meeting Monday in New York.
It is doubtful that foreign security contractors could be prosecuted under Iraqi law. A directive issued by U.S. occupation authorities in 2004 granted contractors, U.S. troops and many other foreign officials immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
Security contractors are also not subject to U.S. military law under which U.S. troopers face prosecution for killing or abusing Iraqis.
Iraqi officials have said in the wake of the Nisoor Square shooting that they will press for amendments to the 2004 directive.
A senior aide to al-Maliki said Friday that three of the Blackwater guards were Iraqis and could be subject to prosecution. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Shortly after the Sept. 20 shooting, U.S. officials said they "understood" that a videotape had recorded the incident in Nisoor Square but refused to give more details. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to the media.
Following the Nisoor Square shooting, the Interior Ministry banned Blackwater from operating in Iraq but rolled back after the U.S. agreed to a joint investigation. The company resumed guarding a reduced number of U.S. convoys on Friday.
The al-Maliki aide said Friday that the Iraqis were pushing for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable."
Hadi al-Amri, a prominent Shiite lawmaker and al-Maliki ally, also said an admission of wrongdoing, an apology and compensation offered a way out of the dilemma.
"They are always frightened and that's why they shoot at civilians," al-Amri said. "If Blackwater gets to stay in Iraq, it will have to give guarantees about its conduct."
Allegations against Blackwater have clouded relations between Iraq and the Americans at a time when the U.S. administration is seeking to contain calls in Congress for sharp reductions in the 160,000-strong U.S. military force.
Adding to those strains, President Jalal Talabani demanded the immediate release of an Iranian official detained Thursday by U.S. forces in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.
The U.S. military said the unidentified Iranian was a member of the Quds force — an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards accused of arming and training Shiite militias in Iraq.
A statement issued Saturday by Talabani's office said the arrest was carried out without the prior knowledge or the cooperation of the Kurdish regional government.
"This amounts to an insult and a violation of its rights and authority," said the statement, quoting a letter Talabani sent to Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Talabani, a Kurd, is one of Washington's most reliable partners in Iraq.
Talabani said Iran had threatened to close the border with the Kurdish region if the official were not freed — a serious blow to the economy in the president's political stronghold.
"I want to express to you our dismay over the arrest by American forces of this official civilian Iranian guest," Talabani wrote to Petraeus and Crocker.
Five Iranians said to be linked to the Quds force were arrested in the Kurdish city of Irbil and remain in U.S. custody.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the death of two more U.S. soldiers — one of an unspecified non-combat related injury and another in a vehicle accident in Diyala province. The deaths raised to at least 3,795 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The U.S. said seven insurgents were killed and 12 were captured in a raid in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad. A U.S. statement said one of those captured is believed to know the whereabouts of senior al-Qaida in Iraq leaders.