Security guards fired randomly - Iraq official

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BAGHDAD, Oct 10 (Reuters) Iraqi authorities today accused guards working for a foreign security company of firing randomly when they killed two women in the latest incident involving private security contractors that has outraged Iraqis.

Family members held a funeral service for the two women after the shooting on Tuesday at a Baghdad intersection involving guards working for Australian-run, Dubai-based Unity Resources Group.

Unity Resources Group (URG) said in a statement on its Web site that it deeply regretted the incident, in which it said a car had failed to stop despite repeated warnings.

It has not yet answered phone calls or emails to its offices in Baghdad and Dubai.

Baghdad security spokesman Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi said the women were at an intersection in Baghdad's Karrada district when four four-wheel-drive vehicles drove up in convoy.

''It opened fire randomly, targeting an Oldsmobile vehicle being driven by a woman,'' Moussawi told Reuters.

URG's statement said its security team was approached at speed by a vehicle which did not stop despite warnings that included hand signals, signal flares and a warning shot. A witness said the guards opened fire when the car edged forward.

The bodies of the two women, members of Iraq's small Armenian Christian sect, were taken in simple wooden coffins to an Armenian church in central Baghdad today.

''She was a housewife,'' the brother of one of the victims, who gave his name only as Albeer, told Reuters Television.

In more violence in northern Iraq, six people were killed in a car bomb attack on a convoy carrying the security directorate chief for Salahuddin province, security officials said.

Provincial security chief Colonel Jassim Hussein Mohammed was not hurt in the attack in the provincial capital Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles), north of Baghdad, but one of his bodyguards was among those killed and another two were wounded.

The attack came a day after two suicide car bombs targeting a police chief and a tribal leader killed 22 people in Baiji.

Al Qaeda has vowed to ramp up its attacks during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ends at the weekend, especially targeting security officials and Sunni Arab tribal leaders who have joined US forces to fight the Sunni Islamist group.

The Baiji bombings were part of an upsurge of violence across Iraq in which at least 56 people died and about 120 were wounded yesterday, one of the bloodiest days of Ramadan.

Moussawi also announced an indefinite ban on parking cars on main streets and intersections in Baghdad in a bid to thwart potential car bomb attacks in the final days of Ramadan.

PRIVATE ARMIES Many Iraqis see private security companies as little more than private armies which act with impunity and are still angry over a Sept. 16 shooting involving US firm Blackwater in which 17 people were killed.

Moussawi said Iraqi police and military were investigating the shooting. URG has worked in Iraq since 2004 and its security escorts typically include Iraqi guards with foreign team leaders.

The Blackwater shooting brought private security contractors under the spotlight, with the incident now the subject of at least four investigations by Iraqi and US officials.

Between 25,000 and 48,000 private security guards work in Iraq under a 2004 law, drawn up while Iraq was still under US administration, which gives them immunity from Iraqi law.

''People run away from them, they are afraid to cross the street in front of them,'' a Baghdad resident, who gave his name only as Qais, told Reuters Television.

The Iraqi government has accused Blackwater of ''deliberately killing'' the 17 Iraqis in last month's shooting in west Baghdad. A government source has said the government wants Blackwater to pay 8 million dollars compensation to each victim's family.

Blackwater, which employs about 1,000 people in Iraq and guards the US embassy, says its guards responded lawfully to a threat against a convoy. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered tighter controls on Blackwater.

Reuters SYU DB2151

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