The Iraqi government on Monday said it had revoked the operating license of Blackwater USA, following a shootout involving the private security company in downtown Baghdad Sunday that left at least nine people dead and 14 wounded, the majority civilians. Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said that the decision meant that Blackwater “cannot work in Iraq any longer, it will be illegal for them to work here.” Khalaf added, “Security contracts do not allow them to shoot people randomly.” The bloody incident on Sunday focuses attention on the mercenary activities of the estimated 25,000-30,000 private contractors from some 60 companies operating in Iraq at the service of the US occupation, forming an integral part of the illegal war and occupation. With revenues of about $100 billion a year, these hired thugs commandeer helicopters and patrol in bulletproof vehicles; many are armed with automatic weapons. Blackwater USA has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq, and at least $800 million in government contracts. One of its main contracts is to provide security to US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and other diplomats. The company has also guarded Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Baghdad in charge of the “surge.” Blackwater has earned the fear and hatred of the Iraqi civilian population, particularly in Baghdad, where its heavily armed agents speed diplomatic convoys through the crowded streets in black SUVs and its “Little Bird” helicopters swarm overhead, riflemen at the windows to provide cover to ground-based convoys. The shooting on Sunday was touched off when a car bomb reportedly exploded near a State Department motorcade in the Mansour district in western Baghdad. According to US Embassy officials, Blackwater employees opened fire, leaving at least nine people dead and wounding 14 others. Iraq Interior ministry spokesman Khalaf put the death toll at 11. Hussein Abdul-Abbas, the owner of a mobile phone store in the area, told Associated Press, “We saw a convoy of SUVs passing in the street nearby. One minute later, we heard the sound of a bomb explosion followed by gunfire that lasted for 20 minutes between gunmen and the convoy people who were foreigners and dressed in civilian clothes. Everybody in the street started to flee immediately.” Lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman, another eyewitness, recounted details of the Sunday incident to Agence France Presse as he lay wrapped in bloodied bandages in Baghdad’s Al-Yarmukh Hospital. Salman said he was hit by five bullets as he tried to flee the scene in his car. He said he heard an explosion and saw a two-car convoy ahead. “The foreigners in the convoy started shouting and signaling to us to go back,” Salman said. “I turned around and must have driven 100 feet (30 meters) when they started shooting.” “There were eight of them in four utility vehicles and all shooting with heavy machine guns,” he added.
“My car was hit with 12 bullets, of which four hit me in the back and one in the arm.” Salmon said he witnessed the killing of a woman and a traffic policeman, and “dozens of people hitting the ground to avoid the barrage of bullets,” according to AFP. Following the incident, US embassy spokesperson Mirembe Nantongo did not immediately confirm the cancellation of Blackwater’s license. W. Johann Schmonsees, embassy information officer, told reporters that the company had not “been expelled from the country yet.” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the Diplomatic Security Service had launched a official investigation into what he described as a “terrible incident.” He was quick to cast blame on the Iraqi population, commenting, “We are fighting people who don’t play by any rules.” Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf stated, “We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the shootings as a “crime” committed by a “foreign service company,” although it is unclear whether the Iraqi government holds the power to regulate Blackwater’s operations. Under the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) led by L. Paul Bremer in the early days of the occupation, a regulation was adopted known as Order 17, which effectively grants immunity to US security contractors and shields them from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Under the order crafted by the Bush administration, all foreign personnel—private and military—are exempt from “local criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction and from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of their parent states.” Order 17 was renewed before the “transfer of sovereignty” to the unelected Iraqi interim government in late June 2004. The measure allows the US military—as well as its hired mercenaries such as Blackwell—to carry out the killing of civilians, destroy homes and property and commit other war crimes such as extra-legal detention and torture of prisoners without fear of prosecution by Iraqi authorities. While another CPA order requires security contractors to register with the Ministry of Interior, a number have not done so.