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Secretary Rice to Meet With Prime Minister Al-Maliki for First Time After Baghdad Shootout

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's planned meeting Saturday with Iraq's prime minister was their first since a Baghdad shootout involving guards from a private U.S. security company protecting American diplomats.

Iraq's Interior Ministry has expanded its investigation of the shooting to include six other incidents over the past seven months involving Blackwater USA security guards. That announcement comes amid rising tensions following the shooting Sept. 16 that killed at least 11 Iraqis, including civilians.

Rice's late afternoon talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki marked the highest-level encounter between the governments since the incident. On Friday, Rice announced a full review of State Department security in Iraq.

Their meeting comes ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly session where al-Maliki will see U.S. President George W. Bush.

The review will examine the rules of engagement followed by security contractors as well as rules and regulations that govern their operations. That includes the jurisdiction in which contractors should be covered and the immunity from prosecution by Iraqi and U.S. military courts that they now enjoy.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is beginning to look at widely conflicting accounts of last weekend's incident; the first session was planned for Sunday.

American witnesses have said the security guards were responding to an attack. Many Iraqi witnesses have told investigators the shooting was unprovoked. The prime minister has called the incident a "crime" and his government has suggested that the U.S. no longer use Blackwater for security.

But the State Department relies heavily on private contractors to protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian U.S. government personnel in Iraq because it lacks the means to do so itself.

Blackwater has said its guards, protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy, were returning fire from insurgents and acted appropriately.

Rice spoke to al-Maliki by telephone Monday to express regret for the deaths. At that time, she asked that he hold off from any action against Blackwater until all the facts were known.

Iraqi officials, who initially said they would ban the company, have shown no sign of easing their criticism. The killings have outraged many Iraqis, who long have resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.

Iraq's Interior Ministry now is looking at other incidents involving Blackwater employees.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the Moyock, North Carolina-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.

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