TIME has obtained an incident report prepared by the U.S. government describing a fire fight Sunday in Baghdad in which at least eight Iraqis were reported killed and 13 wounded. The deadly incident occurred when a convoy of U.S. personnel protected by Blackwater security contractors came under small arms fire. Blackwater returned fire, resulting in the Iraqi deaths. The loss of life has provoked anger in Baghdad, where the Interior Ministry has suspended Blackwater's license to operate around the country. Several Iraqi government officials have indicated their opposition to Blackwater's continued presence in their country. If the suspension is made permanent, it could significantly impair security for key U.S. personnel in the country, a U.S. official in Baghdad told TIME. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose State Department depends on Blackwater to protect its Iraq-based staffers, called Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to say that the U.S. has launched its own investigation into the matter.
According to the incident report, the skirmish occurred at 12:08 p.m. on Sunday when, "the motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations" as it moved through a neighborhood of west Baghdad. "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area. One vehicle engine was hit and disabled by bullets and had to be towed away. A separate convoy arriving to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel," the report says. Then an American helicopter hovered over the traffic circle, as the U.S. convoy departed without casualties. Some reports have said the helicopter also opened fire on Iraqis, but a Blackwater official told TIME that no shots were fired from the air.
Some eyewitnesses said the fighting began after an explosion detonated near the U.S. convoy, but the incident report does not reflect that. The Blackwater official declared that, contrary to some reports from Iraq, "the convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job, they fired back to defend human life." The official said that "Blackwater is contracted to work in a war zone, its personnel are under frequent fire, and all the rules of engagement permit them to defend themselves."
Blackwater, a security company based in Moyock, North Carolina, has more than 1,000 personnel in Iraq, most protecting senior State Department personnel and others carrying out sensitive work in the country. Founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, the firm is privately held and secretive. Last week U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified to the Senate that the State Department is overwhelmingly dependent on contractors like Blackwater for its security. As he put it, "There is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq. There is no alternative except through contracts."
Crocker added, "The capability and courage of the individuals who provide security under contract is worthy of respect of all Americans." As an example of the dangers faced by private security personnel in the country, he cited a Blackwater helicopter that crashed in Iraq last Monday. "One of Blackwater's helicopters went down yesterday - a hostile fire incident," the Ambassador said. "Fortunately no one was killed in that accident, but over 30 of our contract security Americans have been killed keeping the rest of us safe." A Blackwater official confirmed Crocker's account of the incident.
A spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry has told reporters it has cancelled Blackwater's license and will launch an investigation into whether excessive force was used in the incident. But, in spite of that declaration, which was carried on wire reports, a senior Iraqi official contacted by TIME said that prime minister Maliki is expected to discuss the episode at a cabinet session scheduled for Tuesday and that, as far as the license being permanently revoked, "it's not a done deal yet."
However, the Iraqi official also said he had spoken with at least two cabinet members about yesterday's shooting and that some in the government have "been upset about Blackwater for a while now. They want them to get out," said the advisor. The State Department said Secretary Rice called prime minister Maliki on Monday is expected to occur later on Monday. She expressed her regret for the loss of life in the incident, assuring him that the U.S. will conduct its own investigation and inform the Iraqi government of its progress. House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman announced Monday he will launch an investigation into the incident as well, calling it "an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors."
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