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Iraqis Seeks Restitution from Blackwater USA

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Iraq's authority to still trying to get the security firm Blackwater USA out of Iraq. They've delivered a report to the United States on a shooting incident involving Blackwater security guards. The report demands millions in compensation for the families of 17 people killed.

NPR's Anne Garrels is following this story in Baghdad.

And, Anne, Blackwater guards were escorting a convoy. Let's just remember this incident. Do Iraqi officials concede there was any reason for them to open fire?

ANNE GARRELS: On the contrary, in fact, the reports tone is really harsh. Iraqi officials say Blackwater committed deliberate murder and they counter Blackwater's claims it was responding to hostile fire, with officials saying not even a brick was thrown at them.

INSKEEP: And does the United States see the issue any differently?

GARRELS: Well, they haven't responded yet. They're still conducting several of their own investigations. The FBI has been brought in as well as top State Department officials. They're reviewing not just the September 16th incident, but earlier Blackwater shootings as well as the conduct and roles for personal security companies who escort American diplomats.

INSKEEP: Well, how about Blackwater itself? Has it offered any better explanation or any evidence for its claim that, okay, maybe its guards fired across this square and other areas, but at least they were firing in self-defense?

GARRELS: No, Blackwater, other than saying that it responded to fire, has said nothing publicly.

INSKEEP: So does this report tell you anything that you did not know about this incident?

GARRELS: No. The basic scenario is pretty clear from eyewitnesses that Blackwater fired on a car as it was approaching a traffic circle it was trying to secure. The driver was killed. Blackwater fired again according to eyewitnesses. And then the Iraqis say Blackwater guards shot in almost every direction, killing or wounding people in a near 360-degree circle around the square. This has been their position, basically, from the beginning.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask a little bit about the politics of this if I might. Iraq's government, not very long after this incident, revoked Blackwater's license, as I recall. They've demanded that Blackwater get out of Iraq. What are the guards from the security firm doing right now and what are they not doing?

GARRELS: Well, they are continuing to work but their missions have been limited. The State Department has brought in additional State Department security officers to accompany each Blackwater mission that does go out. And the department is apparently going to place cameras on all Blackwater vehicles.

One Blackwater guard I spoke to said he actually thinks this is good. And when I spoke to this guard, he suggested why Blackwater guards may have been particularly jumpy on September 16th. He said the company had taken four casualties earlier that week when a Blackwater convoy was ambushed by two roadside bombs at Baghdad's city hall. And he said a Blackwater helicopter had also been shut down earlier that week.

INSKEEP: The United States has made quite a show of saying, this is a sovereign Iraqi government. And this government did not ask for cameras to be put in vehicles. They asked for this specific firm to be expelled from Iraq. Does Iraq's government have the power - have the authority - to kick somebody out of the country?

GARRELS: That is the $64,000-question. The report actually challenges Blackwater's immunity to prosecution under a decree that was passed by Paul Bremer in 2004. They say that Blackwater's license actually expired in 2006, laying it open to prosecution. And it says the guards should go before Iraqi courts, and that is going to be highly controversial.

INSKEEP: Is that something that Iraq's government has the power to enforce, no matter what they claim?

GARRELS: Well, that will be, you know, something that will be discussed between them. The other issue is compensation, as you noted. They are asking for $8 million for each victim of the 17 victims. What legal right they have to ask for that is also unclear.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels is reporting today from Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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