Iraq cabinet okays law to end foreign firms' immunity

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BAGHDAD, Oct 30 (Reuters) Iraq's cabinet approved a draft law today that would end the immunity from prosecution of foreign security contractors by scrapping a decree that Iraqis have complained amounts to a ''licence to kill''.

The bill, which has to be approved by parliament, follows a September 16 shooting incident involving Blackwater in which 17 Iraqis were killed. The US firm said its guards acted lawfully, but the shooting enraged the Iraqi government.

''The cabinet has approved a law that will put non-Iraqi firms and those they employ under Iraqi law,'' government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters after a cabinet meeting.

Iraq says there are more than 180 mainly US and European security companies in Iraq, with estimates of the number of private contractors ranging from 25,000 to 48,000.

Dabbagh said the bill proposed cancelling Order 17, a controversial decree issued by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2004 shortly before it handed over control to an interim Iraqi government.

A long-running a source of friction between Washington and Baghdad, the measure prevents foreign contractors from being prosecuted in local courts. Iraqi efforts to revoke it had gone nowhere until the Blackwater shooting.

The new bill also proposes tightening controls on foreign security firms by making them register and apply for a licence to work in Iraq, and for all guards to have weapons permits. That process has begun but has been mired in bureaucracy.

Contractors who enter Iraq with a US Department of Defence identity card would have to apply for an entry visa in future.

A potential source of friction is a proposal to make foreign security guards, and the convoys they are protecting, subject to searches at Iraqi security force checkpoints.

That could cause problems for high-profile convoys, several security sources in Baghdad said, as they need to keep on the move to minimise the risk of attack. At present, many convoys do not stop at Iraqi checkpoints.

ABIDING BY THE LAW ''They (Iraqi police and soldiers) will see this as a chance to bring Blackwater and other high-profile security teams down a peg,'' said one security contractor, who declined to be named.

Lawrence Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, told Reuters his members were ''doing their best to abide by the law''.

''We have a number of foreign companies operating under Iraqi law without the provision of CPA Order 17 applying to them and we have had no issues with that,'' he said.

Many Iraqis see foreign security guards as little more than private armies who travel in heavily armed armoured convoys that bulldoze their way through traffic, threatening to open fire on motorists who venture too close.

But the US military, already stretched thin in its fight against Sunni and Shi'ite militants, is heavily dependent on them to protect convoys, buildings and other infrastructure.

The Iraqi government has said that security guards employed by Blackwater ''deliberately killed'' 17 Iraqis in last month's shooting. It said an investigation had found no evidence that the guards had come under fire during the incident.

Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, which protects US diplomats and other officials in Iraq, told a US Congressional hearing that his men had come under small-arms fire and ''returned fire at threatening targets''.

The New York Times reported yesterday that US State Department investigators had offered immunity deals to some Blackwater guards, even though they did not have the authority to make such an offer.

This could complicate efforts to prosecute Blackwater employees in the incident.

Reuters RJ GC2207

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