BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities on Monday threatened to revoke the license of a private U.S. company that guards top American officials here, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, saying the company’s employees killed at least nine people Sunday in a shooting spree in central Baghdad.
Whether the Iraqi Interior Ministry will be able to enforce its decision to ban North Carolina-based Blackwater Security from operating in Iraq is likely to be a major test between the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the U.S.
Blackwater, founded by a major Republican Party benefactor, is among the most prominent of dozens of companies that provide security to both government and private individuals in Iraq.
“We will work on punishing and stopping the work of the foreign security company that committed the criminal operation in Al-Nisour Square,” Maliki told Iraqi state television.
Abdel Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said Iraq also would seek to try the Blackwater employees for the shootings.
In an e-mailed statement, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company’s guards had acted “lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack.”
U.S. officials provided few details of the shooting, which took place as Blackwater guards were escorting unidentified State Department officials through a central Baghdad neighborhood.
Witnesses said the dead included the driver of one car and a mother and child whom he was transporting. Police said the dead included five Iraqi police officers who’d tried to help.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the incident as a “firefight,” but three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting said only the Blackwater guards were firing.
The witnesses said the shooting began after a convoy of four gray armored vehicles drove into Al-Nisour Square, a major intersection in central Baghdad. Iraqi police stopped traffic to let the convoy pass, the witnesses said. One car, however, drove up from behind the traffic to squeeze into a spot at the front. As it did, the security contractors opened fire, the witnesses said.
The young driver was killed instantly, but the shooting continued. The witnesses said they believe a grenade was launched at the car, which burst into flames, killing a young mother and baby in the back seat.
When Iraqi police approached to help the people in the burning car, the contractors started shooting at them.
None of the dead or wounded was an armed insurgent, police said.
Blackwater, headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is perhaps the best known security company operating in Iraq. It was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who has given more than $225,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates.
Iraqis expressed dismay at the events. “I don’t think we have sovereignty in this country while the security companies have the authority to kill Iraqis,” said Ahmed Ali, 38, a teacher.
He said he heard the shooting and watched the ambulances respond. “Are we not human beings and is this not our land?”