BAGHDAD, Iraq – A silver Mercedes swings into the passing lane when a machine gun opens fire, sending the car smashing into a taxi, whose terrified occupants scatter. Moments later, in a video posted on the Internet and apparently recorded in Iraq, a white sedan is riddled with bullets as it accelerates on an open highway.
Framed as if on a movie screen by the outline of a sport-utility vehicle’s rear window, those scenes and others show what appear to be private security contractors firing on Iraqi civilians. The video footage has prompted an investigation by the U.S. military, a spokesman said Thursday, and by the company linked to the incidents.
Details about the origin of the video clip and the location shown in it are unknown. It was originally posted last month on a Web site maintained by former employees of Aegis Specialist Risk Management, a London-based company that has a $293 million U.S. government contract to provide security services in Iraq. The video has since been removed from the site.
“Aegis has established a formal board of enquiry, in cooperation with the U.S. military authorities, to investigate whether the footage has any connection with the company and, should this prove to be the case, under what circumstances any incident took place,” the company said in a statement about the incident.
There are more than 25,000 private security contractors working in Iraq, according to industry estimates. In an effort to limit the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the military employs private contractors to handle jobs that would otherwise be performed by troops. But Iraqi civilians and military commanders have charged that they shoot indiscriminately and flout local laws with impunity.
The companies, whose employees have been frequent targets of insurgent attacks and perform some of the country’s most dangerous jobs, maintain that they use force only when necessary for protection.
But many Iraqis complain that the force used by contractors, who are immune from prosecution under an order signed into Iraqi law last year, is often excessive.
Several videos have been circulating on Web sites and via e-mails that show U.S. military attacks against Iraqis.
The newly released video, which was broadcast widely on Arabic-language satellite television stations in recent days, shows no faces and contains few audible bits of dialogue. Because of that, identifying those involved will be difficult, a U.S. military official said.