Iraq PM Maliki questions future role of Blackwater

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BAGHDAD, Oct 3 (Reuters) Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki questioned today whether US private security firm Blackwater had any future role in Iraq because of the high number of shooting incidents in which it had been involved.

Maliki appeared to toughen his stand again against Blackwater over a September 16 shooting in Baghdad in which 11 Iraqis died, an incident that sparked outrage among Iraqis who see the firm as a private army which acts with impunity.

In Washington, a House of Representatives committee heard in testy hearings yesterday that Blackwater guards had been involved in 195 shooting incidents in Iraq from the start of 2005 until September 12 this year, an average of 1.4 a week.

In those shootings there were 16 Iraqi casualties and 162 cases of property damage. Blackwater fired first in 84 per cent of the incidents, said a report given to the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

''I believe the big numbers of accusations directed against (Blackwater) do not make it valid to stay in Iraq,'' Maliki told a news conference in Baghdad.

Blackwater, which has received US government contracts worth more than a billion dollars, is one of the biggest security contractors in Iraq. It employs about 1,000 people in Iraq, where it guards the US embassy and its staff.

The North Carolina-based company has said its guards reacted lawfully to an attack on a convoy they were protecting during the September 16 incident in western Baghdad.

Maliki's government was harshly critical of Blackwater immediately after the incident, which it called a crime, and vowed to freeze its work and prosecute those involved.

But Maliki's government later appeared to soften its stand, saying no action would be taken against it until after a joint investigation of the incident with US officials.

Its comments came after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised a full review of how US security details are conducted in Iraq. At least four separate investigations into the incident are under way.

Estimates of the number of private security contractors working in Iraq vary between 25,000 and 48,000. They are immune from prosecution under an order drafted after the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.


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