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Blackwater's Iraq Security Contract Threatened

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We may find out soon if American security contractors operate beyond the law. The contractors support the U.S. in Iraq. They include Blackwater USA, whose employees were escorting State Department officials last weekend. They were attacked. They fired back, and at least nine civilians were killed. Now Iraq's government wants the casualties to include Blackwater itself.

Here's NPR's Jamie Tarabay.

JAMIE TARABAY: The question marks over Blackwater's operating status in Iraq haven't deterred Iraqi newspapers today from all publishing the same story, that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has revoked the security company's license and vows to punish those responsible. Whether the Iraqi government has any power to do so is unclear.

After the invasion, U.S. authorities in Iraq passed a law here that made private security firms exempt from Iraqi law. As civilian contractors, Blackwater employees are also not subject to U.S. military law. With fleets of armored vehicles, numerous helicopters, sometimes with visible door gunners and at least a thousand security staff, Blackwater is one of the most visible private security companies in Iraq.

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It's not the first time actions by the North Carolina firm have come under scrutiny. Iraqi officials say Blackwater is often too aggressive when it's out on the streets of Baghdad, and there have been at least three other civilian shooting incidents. Blackwater says its contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack. A spokeswoman claimed the civilians reportedly fired on by Blackwater employees were actually armed men.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Maliki yesterday to express her regret over the killings on Sunday. She said an internal investigation is under way, and its results would be transparent.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.