US diplomatic convoys curtailed in Iraq

Updated: 2007-09-19 11:56

BAGHDAD - The United States on Tuesday suspended all land travel by US diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, amid mounting public outrage over the alleged killing of civilians by the US Embassy's security provider Blackwater USA.

A private security guard paid for by the Shiite community, left, guards a demonstration denouncing Thursday's suicide bomb attack on a funeral being held in the courtyard of a Shiite mosque which killed 50 and wounded over 100, in the northern town of Mosul in Iraq Saturday, March 12, 2005. [AP]

The move came even as the Iraqi government appeared to back down from statements Monday that it had permanently revoked Blackwater's license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country - depriving American diplomats of security protection essential to operating in Baghdad.

"We are not intending to stop them and revoke their license indefinitely but we do need them to respect the law and the regulation here in Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told CNN.

Details of the weekend shootings haven't been released, but the New York Times reported late Tuesday that a preliminary review by Iraq's Ministry of Interior found that Blackwater security guards fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman's call to stop, killing a couple and their infant.

The report, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account offered by Blackwater that the guards were responding to gunfire by militants. According to the story on the Times Web site, the report said that Blackwater helicopters had also fired. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense said that 20 Iraqis were killed, considerably higher than the 11 dead reported before.

Blackwater has said that State Department personnel came under attack from insurgents and that its guards returned fire. Iraqi police say a car bomb exploded near a State Department convoy and that Blackwater guards opened fire.

"There was no shooting against the convoy," the Times quoted Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh as saying. "There was no fire from anyone in the square."

State Department Edgar Vasquez said he had not seen the Iraqi report, reiterating that the department was investigating.

"Let's let these folks do their job and get all the facts. If State Department procedures have not been followed, then at that point we'll assess what actions to take," Vasquez told The Associated Press.

The US order confines most American officials to a 3.5-square-mile area in the center of the city, meaning they cannot visit US-funded construction sites or Iraqi officials elsewhere in the country except by helicopter. The notice did not say when the suspension would expire.

The Iraqi Cabinet decided Tuesday to review the status of all foreign security companies. Still, it was unclear how the dispute would play out, given the government's need to appear resolute in defending national sovereignty while maintaining its relationship with Washington at a time when US public support for the mission is faltering.

Polls show Gen. David Petraeus' report to Congress and President Bush's nationally televised address have had little impact on Americans' distaste for the Iraq war and their desire to withdraw US troops.

Petraeus, America's top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the top US diplomat here, briefed the British government Tuesday on their recommendations to keep troop levels high.

Also Tuesday, three US soldiers were killed following an explosion near their patrol northeast of Baghdad, the military said. Another soldier was killed in a vehicle accident in the northern province of Ninevah, the military said.

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