Alex Constantine - September 19, 2007
Rice apologises for US security firm shootings
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
September 18, 2007
The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, apologised to the Iraqi government yesterday in an attempt to prevent the expulsion of all employees of the security firm Blackwater USA.
The ministry of interior yesterday took the decision to expel Blackwater after eight Iraqi civilians were killed and 13 wounded in Baghdad when shots were fired from a US state department convoy on Sunday.
Diplomats, engineers and other westerners in Iraq rely heavily on protection by Blackwater. The Iraqi decision created confusion on the ground, with uncertainty over whether protection was still available and whether Blackwater staff should leave the country immediately.
Ms Rice called the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to apologise for the shooting. They agreed to run a "fair and transparent investigation", according to a statement from Mr Maliki's office.
It added: "She has expressed her personal apologies and the apologies of the government of the United States. She confirmed that the United Sates will take immediate actions to prevent such actions from happening again."
The office did not specify whether the apology was sufficient to reverse the expulsion decision.
The apology offers a face-saving exercise for both the Iraqi and the US governments. The US would find it temporarily awkward if Blackwater was expelled. At the same time, it does not want to be seen to be undermining the decisions of the Iraqi government, which the Bush administration repeatedly insists is autonomous.
There are tens of thousands of mercenaries - or private security operators - in Iraq, including British firms as well as American. Jeremy Scahill, author of a book about Blackwater, put the figure at about 180,000 and described them as "unaccountable". Blackwater has 1,000 employees in Iraq.
The private security firms are controversial and are often hated by Iraqis who regard them as trigger-happy. US soldiers can face court martial if accused of unprovoked assaults or over-reaction, though the ratio of those convicted is low. But the law in relation to private security firms is vague.
Brigadier-general Adam-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said: "We have cancelled the licence of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory. We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities."
He said there would be prosecutions in relation to Sunday's deaths. He said foreign security contractors opened fire after mortar rounds landed near the convoy. "By chance the company was passing by. They opened fire randomly at citizens."
Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister, said: "This is such a big crime that we can't stay silent. Anyone who wants to have good relations with Iraq has to respect Iraqis."
He told al-Arabiya television that foreign contractors "must respect Iraqi laws and the right of Iraqis to independence on their land. These cases have happened more than once and we can't keep silent in the face of them".
Bush's 'beacon of hope' killed - Iraqi sheikh led local clans to side with US against insurgents
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
September 14, 2007
A Sunni sheikh whose alliance with US forces was held up as a beacon of hope for Iraq was killed by a bomb outside his home yesterday, days after a high-profile meeting with George Bush.
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha had been the living embodiment of the cooperation between US forces and local clans in the fight against Sunni extremists in Iraq's Anbar province. He was so well regarded by America that he was offered an audience with Mr Bush during his six-hour visit to Iraq last week. The pair were photographed shaking hands.
Last night, the White House condemned his killing. "This is a sheikh who was one of the first to come forward to want to work with the United States to repel al-Qaida from Anbar province," the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said. "This is the kind of enemy we are dealing with."
General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, issued a statement calling the sheikh's death a tragedy. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq. It shows how significant his importance was and it shows al-Qaida in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy. He was an organising force that did help organise alliances and did help keep the various tribes together."
Early reports said Abu Risha, who was in his 30s, was killed by a car bomb or a device planted on the roadside near his home in Ramadi. At least two of his body guards also died in the explosion.
The sheikh's death came as Mr Bush was about to present his case for maintaining a strong US presence in Iraq to a war weary public and a restive Congress in an address from the Oval Office last night.
In his report on the state of the war, Gen Petraeus had called the rejection of al-Qaida by Sunni tribes "the most significant development of the past eight months". Only a year ago, US officials had given Anbar up as politically lost.
Abu Risha had been the most visible local advocate of that turnabout, giving interviews to Arabic satellite channels calling for an end to extremism.
The general said the success of America's alliance with the Sunni tribes under Abu Risha in driving al-Qaida out of Anbar had persuaded him that it was possible to begin pulling out US forces without compromising security on the ground.
Such gains were so crucial to Mr Bush's calculations on selling his war plan to the US public last night that he did not even go to Baghdad during his lightning trip to Iraq. He spent his entire visit at the US air base in Anbar, meeting Iraqi tribal leaders and members of the Baghdad government.
The sheikh is not the first local leader to face retribution for his cooperation with the US. Last June, four Sunni sheikhs who had been working with the US were killed by a suicide bomb near a Baghdad hotel.