BAGHDAD – The Iraqi prime minister vowed Monday to seek punishment for the Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 people at a busy Baghdad intersection after U.S. courts dropped the case in a decision that outraged many Iraqis.
Nouri al-Maliki's comments were his first public reaction since a U.S. judge threw out the case against the five Blackwater guards last week.
The guards were accused of an unprovoked attack that left 17 dead. The killings inflamed anti-American sentiment and solidified many Iraqis' image of U.S. security contractors as above the law.
"We have done what is necessary to protect our citizens and to punish those who committed the crime and we have formed committees and filed a lawsuit against Blackwater security firm either in America or Iraq. We won't abandon our right to punish this firm," al-Maliki said.
The prime minister spoke during a visit to the southern city of Najaf to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is considered the most influential Shiite cleric in the country.
Blackwater had been hired by the State Department to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The guards said they were ambushed but U.S. prosecutors and many Iraqis said the Blackwater guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on civilians using machine guns and grenades.
The case drove a wedge between the U.S. and Iraq, which was perceived powerless to protect its people against the plethora of private security contractors that had sprung up since the Iraq war began.
Iraqi officials have pledged to pursue the case but it was not immediately clear exactly what legal means they intended to use.
Dozens of Iraqis have filed a separate lawsuit alleging that Blackwater employees engaged in indiscriminate killings and beatings. That case is still before a Virginia court.
The shootings led the Iraqi government to strip the North Carolina-based company of its license to work in the country, and Blackwater replaced its management and changed its name to Xe Services.
A federal judge last week dismissed all the charges against the five guards, citing repeated government missteps in the investigation. the judge said prosecutors built their case on sworn statements that the guards had given believing they would be immune from prosecution.
Meanwhile, in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a pair of roadside bombs killed three people, including two of the city's police chief's guards, police and hospital officials said.
The first blast targeted a police convoy. Two guards of the city's police chief were in the convoy and both were killed in the attack. The police chief was not in the convoy.
Another roadside bomb targeting a police patrol went off minutes later, killing a policeman, the officer said.
The casualties were confirmed by an official at the hospital.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The motive for the attacks was not immediately known, though security personnel have frequently been targeted by insurgents who see them as collaborators with the government.
The oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been a center of controversy in Iraq. Under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's program of Arabization, Kurds were kicked out of the city and Arabs moved in. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurds began moving back to the city but now many Arabs claim there are more Kurds than ever before.