An escalating controversy over the alleged shooting of Iraqi civilians by a U.S. security firm has triggered the strongest challenge yet to legal immunity for some foreigners in Iraq, while providing a rare rallying cry for the country's polarized factions.
Iraqi government statements have been contradictory on the Sept. 16 gunfire, in which Blackwater USA, based in North Carolina, is accused of having killed Iraqi civilians while escorting an American diplomatic convoy in Baghdad. They range from threats to prosecute Blackwater to promises not to expel the firm from Iraq.
But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has managed to galvanize broad-based opposition to an order issued in the waning days of direct American rule in Iraq that lays out broad immunity from criminal prosecution for U.S. diplomats, troops and private contractors operating in Iraq.
It is known as Order 17, issued by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004. Iraqi officials have long chafed at the law, viewing it as an encroachment on Iraqi sovereignty. But until now, no serious effort has been made to revise it.
The central government, unpopular on the streets and worried about being marginalized, appears to be using the Blackwater crisis to counter U.S. criticism that it is ineffective and to show ordinary Iraqis that it can stand up to Washington.
The U.S. Embassy here has released few details of what happened, saying U.S. officials are continuing to investigate. But the shooting has brought together Iraq's three biggest and mostly hostile factions -- Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shiite Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds.
"This is a very good point on which everyone agrees," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's Parliament.
"We cannot continue to have the Iraqi-American relationship solely on the basis of Order 17," says Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni member of Parliament.
The united front is a surprising turnabout. In recent months, Washington has stepped up criticism of Iraq's central government, accusing it of not enacting key laws fast enough and dragging its feet on reconciling the country's warring communities. Exasperated with the central government, the U.S. military has sought to bypass Baghdad in striking security deals directly with local leaders.
Some of the sharpest language against the security firm and its American backers has been coming from the Ministry of Interior, an institution that U.S. officials and military commanders have repeatedly branded a failure because of its alleged infiltration by sectarian militias. Within days of the Sept. 16 shootout, the ministry announced that it had completed its investigation and intended to prosecute Blackwater in connection with the allegations under Iraq's penal code. Ministry officials suggested the U.S. should look for another firm to provide diplomatic security, though several days later Blackwater resumed protecting U.S. Embassy personnel.
"There's no immunity for security companies here in Iraq," ministry spokesman Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said late last week.
Aides to Mr. Maliki, while expressing anger at the Blackwater episode, have sought to distance themselves from the Interior Ministry's hard-line position. Asked to confirm whether the government intends to prosecute Blackwater under Iraqi laws, government spokesman Ali Dabagh said, "This doesn't reflect the Iraqi government's view." Mr. Dabagh says Baghdad will instead work with Washington to make sure foreign security companies adhere to Iraqi laws in the future.
Iraqi officials and witnesses say Blackwater opened fire without provocation, although exactly who was firing at whom would be hard to determine in the melee at a busy traffic circle. Eleven Iraqis were killed, according to the Interior Ministry.
A doctor at the Yarmuk Hospital who treated victims that day says several people he spoke with recalled hearing an explosion, followed immediately by gunfire from the American convoy. The doctor declined to be identified out of fear for his safety.
In its only statement on the gunfire, Blackwater said on Sept.17 that its guards reacted to an ambush and returned "defensive fire."
The U.S. Embassy says it is continuing its own inquiry and hasn't received findings of the separate Iraqi investigation. Once the U.S. inquiry is complete, its conclusions will be sent to a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission reviewing the rules governing private security companies in Iraq.
Iraqis have long been outraged by what they often say is a heavy hand used by security outfits such as Blackwater, and the firms' seeming immunity against repercussions for their actions. "This is really an unfortunate situation, but it happened many times before," says Zuhair Hummadi, an adviser to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi. "This time it got out of hand."
In December, a Blackwater employee shot and killed one of the vice president's guards without provocation, Iraqi officials say. The employee left Iraq and no longer works for Blackwater. Mr. Maliki himself cited six incidents involving Blackwater before the Sept. 16 shooting.
"Order 17 supercedes the Iraqi law," Mr. Hummadi says. "What we need now is a new treaty."