BAGHDAD - A top Iraqi judge said on Tuesday that US security firm Blackwater could go on trial over a deadly shootout in Baghdad, as Washington sought to cool tensions over the incident.
"This company is subject to Iraqi law and the crime committed was on Iraqi territory and the Iraqi judiciary is responsible for tackling the case," said Abdul Sattar Ghafour Bairaqdar from Iraq's Supreme Judiciary Council, the country's highest court.Iraq's interior ministry on Monday ordered the cancellation of Blackwater's operating licence after its guards who were escorting US embassy officials were involved in Sunday's gunbattle in Baghdad's Al-Yarmukh neighbourhood.
Eight people were killed and 13 wounded in the shooting, which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned as a "criminal" act.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Maliki on Monday to express her regret, as US and Iraqi officials pursued their investigations into the incident.
US and Iraqi sources in Baghdad said the shooting erupted after a bomb exploded near a US diplomatic convoy, but a US government incident report said armed insurgents fired on the convoy and Blackwater guards responded.
The Iraqi judge said the case against Blackwater, one of the biggest private security firms operating in the violence-wracked country, could be filed either by relatives of the victims or by the government.
Despite the interior ministry order, a US embassy official said on Tuesday that Blackwater -- which employs almost 1,000 people in Iraq -- had not been expelled.
"Blackwater is still here. The US authorities are holding discussions with the Iraqi counterparts over the issue," the official told AFP.
The ministry's director of operations, Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf, said the investigation was continuing, adding: "We will submit our report in a day or two to the judiciary."
Rice called Maliki on Monday to "express her regret over the death of innocent civilians that occurred during the attack on an embassy convoy," US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
But Maliki's office said Rice went further and had "apologised personally" as well as assuring him that a detailed investigation would be conducted.
According to a US government incident report, the "skirmish occurred... when the (US) motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations as it moved through a neighbourhood of west Baghdad," Time magazine reported.
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"The team returned fire to several identified targets," Time quoted the report as saying.
"Some eyewitnesses said the fighting began after an explosion detonated near the US convoy, but the incident report does not reflect that," the magazine said.
US embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad, Mirembe Nantongo, told reporters on Monday that the shooting happened when the private security guards "reacted to a car bomb."
A Blackwater official told Time 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.'"
Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded the ouster of Blackwater, saying those employed by the company were "criminals and those who have left American jails."
The shootout came as the spotlight was focused on the future strategy of the United States in Iraq, where top commanders are forecasting a troop drawdown in the coming months.
Political analyst Peter Singer, in an article posted on the Brookings Institution website, said the US military in Iraq was stretched thin and that US government's diplomatic security force "has been hollowed out."
This means that in the short term, Washington will have to "ignore the Iraqis' wishes and just keep on using Blackwater contractors as before; find another company to step in and quick-fill take on these roles in lieu of the firm; or negotiate with the Iraqis to find terms under which (Blackwater) might continue to carry out the operation."
Set up by a former US Navy SEAL, Blackwater made headlines when four of its contractors were killed and their bodies were hanged from a bridge in the then insurgent bastion of Fallujah west of Baghdad in 2004.
The company operates a fleet of helicopters offering security to US embassy officials and other Americans and escorts for convoys on the country's dangerous roads.
Meawhile, 11 people were killed in bomb attacks in Baghdad on Tuesday, including seven who died when a car bomb and a mortar targeted a morgue filled with people looking for their missing relatives, security officials said.
Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse