Iraqi Leader Says U.S. Contractors Will Be Responsible for Civilian Deaths

( LatWp ) - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised Wednesday that American security contractors would be held accountable for opening fire on Iraqis in Baghdad last weekend.

Speaking to reporters at his office in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Maliki called on the U.S. government to sever ties with Blackwater USA, a private security firm whose guards were involved in a shootout in downtown Baghdad on Sunday that left at least nine and as many as 28 people dead. Maliki said a preliminary report into the incident shows that the Blackwater guards were not acting in self-defense when they began shooting.

"We will not allow Iraqis to be killed in cold blood," Maliki said. "There is a sense of tension and anger among all Iraqis, including the government, over this crime."

His comments came as the State Department announced the formation of a joint U.S.-Iraqi government commission to examine the security forces that protect American diplomats. The commission will suggest ways to improve U.S. and Iraqi policy governing private security contractors, according to State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The shooting has inflamed deep-seated frustrations with Blackwater among Iraqis, many of whom view the company's contractors as highly paid bullies with no respect for the citizens and customs of the country where they work. Iraqi officials were quick to speak out after Sunday's incident, prompting the Department to suspend all ground travel outside the Green Zone for its diplomats.

The prime minister said he is confident that the Iraqi government will be able to take punitive action against the Blackwater guards despite an order that grants immunity to security contractors working in Iraq. The Interior Ministry revoked Blackwater's operating license Monday, and Maliki said that results of a full investigation into the incident would determine whether the company will be allowed to remain in the country.

Maliki added that the decision would also be informed by six previous cases in which the company's guards were accused of using unjustified force against Iraqis. Although he did not give specifics about those incidents, Iraqi officials have accused a Blackwater guard of shooting and killing one of Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi's guards last December.

A preliminary report from Blackwater indicated that Sunday's violence began when a State Department motorcade was ambushed, but Maliki and other Iraqi officials disputed that account. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said an initial investigation shows that the guards opened fire when a car failed to stop at a police officer's command and pulled into traffic. The gunfire killed as many as 28 people, including a couple and their infant, he said.

In other developments Wednesday, insurgents kidnapped at least 38 employees of a trucking company as they drove through Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, police said. The Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq asserted responsibility for the incident, in which at least 70 gunmen took part in a sophisticated ambush.

Police said they have not discovered a motive for the kidnapping, which took place southwest of the city of Samarra, but they added that the truckers were believed to have contracted with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to transport crude oil to Jordan.

The U.S. military also announced the deaths of two soldiers Wednesday. One was killed in combat west of Baghdad, and the other died of noncombat-related causes in Salahuddin province, the military said.

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