Iraq to review security firms after shooting

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BAGHDAD, Sep 18 (Reuters) Iraq will review the status of all security companies after this week's ''flagrant assault'' by contractors from the US firm Blackwater in which 11 people were shot dead, the government said today.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the cabinet backed an Interior Ministry decision to ''halt the licence'' of Blackwater, which provides security for the US embassy, and launch an immediate investigation into the shooting.

He later said that the Iraqi and US governments had set up a joint committee to investigate the killings which occurred when Blackwater contractors opened fire randomly after mortar rounds landed near to their convoy in western Baghdad on Sunday.

Fiery anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, adding his voice to Iraqi anger over the incident, urged the government to ''cancel this company's work, and the rest of the criminal and intelligence companies''.

Estimates of the number of security contractors employed by mainly US and European firms across Iraq range from between 25,000 and 48,000.

In fresh violence, four car bombs in Baghdad killed 17 people and wounded 50, police said.

An explosion near a US patrol also killed three soldiers and wounded three others in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, the military said. It gave no details on the type of explosion, but many soldiers are killed by roadside bombs.

''Cabinet affirmed ... the need to review the situation of foreign and local security companies working in Iraq, in accordance with Iraqi laws,'' Dabbagh said.

''This came after the flagrant assault conducted by members of the American security company Blackwater against Iraqi citizens,'' he said in a statement after the cabinet meeting.

Blackwater said its guards reacted ''lawfully and appropriately'' to a hostile attack. It said late yesterday it had received no official notice from Iraq's Interior Ministry.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington the US government had not been officially informed that Blackwater's license had been withdrawn.

He said the jurisdiction over any crimes that might have been committed would depend on the circumstances and stressed the State Department does not know whether any rules or laws were broken despite the loss of ''innocent'' life.

LEGAL STATUS UNCLEAR US officials in Baghdad have also yet to clarify the legal status of foreign security contractors in Iraq, including whether they could be prosecuted by Iraqi authorities.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said it was important that security contractors behaved in a way ''that is consistent with the laws and rules of the sovereign nation of Iraq,'' but declined to say whether they fell under Iraqi law.

Many Iraqis see the contractors, who have worked in Iraq since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, as private armies that have acted for too long with impunity.

''These cases have happened more than once and we can't keep silent in the face of them,'' Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said yesterday.

Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Iraq had the right to take action if the Blackwater force had fired on civilians.

''Definitely we have the right. If they committed this act, they should be tried,'' he said.

The latest bombings in Baghdad came after Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in Iraq militants pledged a renewed campaign of violence to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

Police said today's deadliest car bomb attack killed eight people and wounded 22 near a market in the Ur neighbourhood, not far from the Shi'ite district of Sadr City.

Three other car bombs killed a total of nine people and wounded 28 in Baghdad, police said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a security campaign around Baghdad in February, aimed at curbing violence and winning time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to pass laws aimed at reconciling warring Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs.

But the legislative progress has been slow and Tuesday's parliamentary session was called off when just 108 members showed up, well below the 138 required for a quorum.

REUTERS RC BST0210

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