BAGHDAD -- US and Iraqi officials are negotiating Baghdad's demand that security company Blackwater USA be expelled from the country within six months, and American diplomats appear to be working on how to fill the security gap if the company is phased out.
A helicopter operated by Blackwater USA, a private security contractor, flies over central Baghdad, Iraq, In this Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, file photo. [Agencies]
The talks about Blackwater's future in Iraq flow from recommendations in an Iraqi government report on the incident September 16 when, Iraqi officials determined, Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation in Baghdad's Nisoor Square and killed 17 Iraqi citizens.
The Iraqi investigators issued five recommendations to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has since sent them to the US Embassy as demands for action.
Point No 2 in the report says:
"The Iraqi government should demand that the United States stops using the services of Blackwater in Iraq within six months and replace it with a new, more disciplined organization that would be answerable to Iraqi laws."
Sami al-Askari, a top aide to al-Maliki, said that point in the Iraqi list of demands was nonnegotiable.
"I believe the government has been clear. There have been attacks on the lives of Iraqi citizens on the part of that company (Blackwater). It must be expelled. The government has given six months for its expulsion and it's left to the US Embassy to determine with Blackwater when to terminate the contract. The American administration must find another company," he said.
In talks between American diplomats and the al-Maliki government, al-Askari said, the US side was not "insisting on Blackwater staying." He was the only Iraqi or American official who would allow use of his name, others said information they gave was too sensitive.
Al-Askari said the Americans have been told that another demand, Blackwater payment of $8 million in compensation for each victim, was negotiable.
"With the investigations and reviews ongoing, it would be clearly premature to say that any definitive determinations have been made about the future of the Blackwater contract," a senior US official in Baghdad said.
Another diplomat, speaking privately, said he did not see how the State Department could insist on keeping Blackwater in place given how "tainted" it had become after the September 16 incident and several others.
In an interview to be broadcast Monday on PBS, Charlie Rose asked Blackwater chief Erik Prince about the issue.
"We'll do what we're told and, you know, make the transition as smooth as possible," Prince said.
A Shiite lawmaker who sits on parliament's security and defense committee said al-Maliki has complained that the United States embassy had not briefed the Iraqis on what was learned when Blackwater guards were questioned.
He said two Iraqi security officials were briefly allowed to sit in as observers on two questioning sessions of the Blackwater guards.
The Iraqi government investigative report said Blackwater guards had killed 21 other Iraqi citizens and wounded 27 in a total of seven previous incidents, including a shooting by a drunk Blackwater employee after a 2006 Christmas party. Congress is investigating whether the government relies too heavily on private contractors who fall outside the military courts martial system.
While the Blackwater name may be removed from security operations surrounding US diplomats in Iraq, American officials and members of the security community in Baghdad said the company's men and other assets in Iraq would likely be taken over by one of the many security companies currently working in Iraq.
They said DynCorp, which already has security contracts with the State Department to guard officials working outside Baghdad, appeared poised to take over the Blackwater role.
Under the terms of the department's Worldwide Personal Protective Security contract, which covers privately contracted guards for diplomats in Iraq, Blackwater, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy are the only three companies eligible to bid on specific task orders there. Dyncorp and Triple Canopy are both based in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs. Blackwater works from a huge complex in Moyock, N.C.
While DynCorp and Triple Canopy already work in Iraq, neither company is believed to have the infrastructure in place to take over Blackwater's responsibilities in the six-month period demanded by the al-Maliki government.
The FBI has taken over an investigation of the September 16 shooting and questioned Iraqi witnesses to the shooting Saturday at the Iraqi National Police headquarters about 500 yards from Nisoor Square.
Prince says reports he has indicated one of the four Blackwater gun trucks involved in the shooting came under fire. He said the company reports say the truck had bullet pockmarks and was damaged badly enough that it had to be towed. No other witness, those interviewed by AP or Iraqi government investigators, told of gunfire on the Blackwater vehicles or of one being towed.
Other witnesses said Blackwater helicopters arrived over the square during the shooting and opened fire.
One of them was 20-year-old Ahmed Abdul-Timan, who works as a guard at the tunnel that runs under the square. He told AP that the initial US investigative team tried to intimidate him into changing his story about the helicopters firing. He said the interrogation lasted three hours.
"Four or five days after the incident," Abdul-Timan said, "there was a second investigation but the questioning was done by a US Army major. It was much easier. They videotaped what I said, took my phone number and address. The major tried to comfort us, saying he and his men love the Iraqi people and want to help them."
Abdul-Timan's account squares with others that indicated the first investigation by State Department personnel appeared to be an attempt to vindicate the Blackwater guards. The US military conducted the second investigation and was more sympathetic.
Estimates of the number of private security workers in Iraq have fluctuated greatly. In June 2006 the US Government Accountability Office said there were 181 security companies with 48,000 employees in Iraq. The more recent Congressional Research Service report said there were as many as 30,000 security workers.