2 Iraqi Women Killed in Shooting by Security Convoy
BAGHDAD - Two women died here on Tuesday when their white Oldsmobile was riddled by automatic gunfire from guards for a private security company, just weeks after a shooting by another company strained relations between the United States and Iraq.
The guards involved in the Tuesday shooting were working for an Australian-run security company. But the people they were assigned to protect work under the same United States government agency whose security guards sprayed bullets across a crowded Baghdad square on Sept. 16, an episode that caused an uproar among Iraqi officials and is still being investigated by the United States.
In the Tuesday shooting, as many as 40 bullets struck the car, killing the driver and the woman in the front seat on the passenger side. A woman and a boy in the back seat survived, according to witnesses and local police officials in the Karada neighborhood, where the shooting took place on a boulevard lined with appliance stores, tea shops and money changers.
American government officials said the guards had been hired to protect financial and policy experts working for an organization under contract with the United States Agency for International Development, a quasi-independent State Department agency that does extensive aid work in Iraq.
The organization, RTI International, is in Iraq to carry out what is ultimately a State Department effort to improve local government and democratic institutions. But a Bush administration official said the State Department bore no responsibility for overseeing RTI's security operations.
"A.I.D. does not direct the security arrangements of its contractors," the official said. "These groups are contractually responsible for the safety and security of their employees. That responsibility falls entirely on the contractor."
A priest and relatives near the scene said that all of the people in the car were Armenian Christians, who make up a small minority group in Iraq. The Oldsmobile was shot once in the radiator, witnesses said, in front of a plumbing supply store as it approached a convoy of white sport utility vehicles 50 yards away.
As the car kept rolling, a barrage of gunfire suddenly tore through its hood, roof and windshield, as well as the passenger side.
The guards who were in the convoy work for Unity Resources Group, an Australian-run company that has its headquarters in Dubai and is registered in Singapore, according to a statement by the company. Unity Resources was hired by RTI to provide security in Iraq.
In its statement, Unity Resources said that according to its initial information, the car had approached the convoy "at speed" and failed to stop in response to hand signals and a warning flare.
"Finally shots were fired at the vehicle and it stopped," the company said.
The episode's connection with the United States Agency for International Development is one of several parallels to the Sept. 16 shootings, in which the Iraqi government says 17 Iraqis died and 27 were wounded.
The Sept. 16 episode began when a convoy operated by Blackwater USA, an American private security company hired to protect the aid agency's officials, entered Nisour Square in central Baghdad and fired several bullets toward a car the guards apparently considered a threat.
In the Tuesday shooting, like the one on Sept. 16, the car drifted forward after the initial burst, prompting guards to unleash a barrage of gunfire. And there were no government officials or policy experts in either of the convoys: the Nisour Square convoy was controlling traffic as part of a larger operation, and the convoy in Karada was on a routine movement that involved only security guards, according to American officials.
Although the United States Embassy in Baghdad has said almost nothing about the Nisour Square episode while an American investigation grinds on, the Iraqi government has said its own investigation concluded that the shootings were an act of "deliberate murder" and called on the Blackwater guards to be prosecuted.
Ali Jafar, a traffic policeman posted near the Karada shooting, said he thought the similarities between the cases were undeniable.
"They are killing the people just like what happened in Nisour Square," Mr. Jafar said. "They are butchering the Iraqis."
The new shootings happened at an extremely difficult time for the State Department, which relies heavily on Blackwater to protect its diplomats whenever they work outside the fortified Green Zone. As a result of new restrictions placed on Blackwater after the Nisour Square shootings, the State Department's numerous programs for rebuilding Iraqi government and technical institutions have been seriously hampered.
Embassy officials have vowed to continue their operations even as they increase oversight of Blackwater operations. But Tuesday's episode appears to show that the new oversight comes with many loopholes: Unity Resources is not working directly for the State Department, but for RTI International, which has been contracted by the aid agency to provide experts on local governing.
In fact, an American Embassy spokesman said, the State Department has no say in the operations of security companies employed by government contractors. "Their contract might be with A.I.D., but that doesn't shed any light on their choice of security contractor," he said.
A spokesman for Unity Resources, Martin Simich, said Tuesday that he was unsure whether the guards involved in the shooting had been interviewed by American authorities.
On Tuesday, the convoy of white S.U.V.'s was stopped in the eastbound lane of Karada Street at an intersection with an alley lined with low concrete homes, witnesses said. A man who works at the plumbing shop, who gave his name only as Muhammad, said the Oldsmobile was approaching the convoy from behind.
He said he heard no warnings. "They shot from the back door," he said. "The door opened and they fired."
Two witnesses said they heard a single shot first, which apparently punctured the Oldsmobile's radiator, spilling coolant onto the street about 50 yards from where the convoy was parked. As the car continued rolling, the guards opened up with a barrage of sustained automatic fire. The car finally came to a stop about 10 yards from the convoy at a point that, three hours later, was marked by blood stains, broken glass and tufts of brown hair.
The plumbing shop employee said the convoy moved out right away, without checking to see what damage had been done or to offer medical help.
The Oldsmobile was towed to a nearby police station.
The priest and relatives near the scene identified the driver as Maruni Uhanees, 59, and the dead passenger as Jeniva Jalal, 30.
As twilight set in, family members gathered beside the car in a dirt alley outside the police station, staring at the blood and hair on the inside of the windshield.
A brother-in-law of the driver, Hrair Vartanian, said Ms. Uhanees was the mother of three grown daughters. As he spoke, one daughter arrived and looked at the blood stains, crying softly.
Reporting was contributed by Richard A. Oppel Jr., Qais Mizher and Ahmad Fadam from Baghdad, John M. Broder from Washington, and Graham Bowley from New York.
© 2007 The New York Times