The American firm Blackwater USA has been served notice that it faces investigations
for war crimes after 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed in a hail of bullets
by its security guards in Baghdad.
The killings last month put the spotlight on the private security firms whose
employees are immune from prosecution, unlike professional soldiers who are
subject to courts martial. In the second such incident in less than a month,
involving the Australian contractor Unity Resources Group this week, two Armenian
Christian women were shot dead after their car approached a protected convoy.
Their car was riddled with 40 bullets.
Ivana Vuco, the most senior UN human rights officer in Iraq, spoke yesterday
about the shootings by private security guards, which have provoked outrage
among Iraqis. "For us, it's a human rights issue," she said. "We
will monitor the allegations of killings by security contractors and look into
whether or not crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed."
An Iraqi who was wounded in the 16 September shooting, and the relatives of
three people killed in the attack, filed a court case in Washington yesterday
accusing Blackwater of violating American law by committing "extrajudicial
killings and war crimes."
Iraq says there are more than 180 mainly US and European security companies
in the country, with estimates of the number of American contractors running
at 100,000. Many Iraqis see the firms as little more than trigger-happy private
armies, and the latest incidents have strained relations between Iraq and the
US, which has ordered a full security review.
Iraqi authorities have accused Blackwater of the "deliberate murder"
of Iraqi civilians in the shooting in a crowded city square, and are demanding
millions of dollars in compensation and the removal of the company from the
country within six months. The security firm says its guards returned fire at
threatening targets and responded lawfully to a threat against a convoy it was
Ms Vuco said human rights laws applied equally to contractors and other parties
in a conflict. "We will be stressing that in our communications with US
authorities. This includes the responsibility to investigate, supervise and
prosecute those accused of wrongdoing," she said at the launch in Baghdad
of the latest UN human rights report, covering the period from April to June.
It described the human rights situation in Iraq as "very grim".
Said Arikat, the UN mission spokesman, urged the Bush administration to hold
accountable those involved in indiscriminate shooting; "to apply the rules
of engagement and prosecute them". He added: "There cannot be rogue
elements that are above the law. Definitely, we will be driving that point home
time and again."
In the most recent shooting, on Tuesday, a woman taxi driver, Marany Awanees,
and her front-seat passenger were killed. Unity Resources Group said its guards
feared a suicide attack and fired only after issuing several warnings. The guards
were protecting financial and policy experts working under contract for the
US Agency for International Development.
Private security firms benefit from immunity under a 2004 law promulgated by
the Coalition Provisional Authority.