By SINAN SALAHEDDIN
BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq will not allow Blackwater Worldwide to continue providing security protection for U.S. diplomats in the country, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Thursday, a move that would deprive U.S. officials of their primary protection force.
Blackwater’s image in Iraq was irrevocably tarnished by the September 2007 killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square. Five former Blackwater guards pleaded not guilty Jan. 6 in federal court in Washington to manslaughter and gun charges in that shooting.
Even before the shooting, Blackwater had a reputation for aggressive operations and using excessive force in protecting American officials, an allegation the company has disputed.
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina-based company, said the company had not yet been notified of the Iraqi decision.
“I can tell you that we have received no official communications from the government of Iraq on this matter,” she said.
The decision not to issue Blackwater an operating license was due to “improper conduct and excessive use of force,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf.
Neither Khalaf nor a U.S. Embassy official gave a date for Blackwater personnel to leave the country and neither said whether they would be allowed to continue guarding U.S. diplomats during the interim.
A U.S.-Iraqi security agreement approved in November gives the Iraqis the authority to determine which Western security companies operate in Iraq. A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee is drawing up procedures for licensing and regulating security companies under the security agreement and it is unclear when it will finish the process.
“We have followed the procedures to apply for and secure operating licenses in Iraq,” said Tyrrell, the Blackwater spokeswoman. “Any further questions about that the licensing process should be directed to our customer.”
Khalaf said Blackwater employees who have not been implicated in the 2007 shooting have the right to work in Iraq but must find a different employer.
“We sent our decision to the U.S. Embassy last Friday,” Khalaf told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “They have to find a new security company.”
The U.S. Embassy official confirmed it received the government’s decision, saying that U.S. officials were working with the Iraqi government and its contractors to address the “implications of this decision.”
The official made the statement on condition of anonymity under embassy regulations.
In the 2007 shooting, Blackwater maintains its guards opened fire after coming under attack after a car in a State Department convoy broke down.
The Iraqi government has labeled the guards “criminals” and is closely watching the case.
The State Department relies heavily in Blackwater since it is the largest and best-equipped security company here.
But the company has become a lightning rod for Iraqi complaints about the behavior of Western security companies, whose employees were immune from prosecution under Iraqi law until the security agreement took effect this month.