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McClatchy Newspapers

Contractors in Iraq Could Face Charges in Earlier Incidents

Nancy A. Youssef

WASHINGTON - Private security contractors operating in Iraq could
face Iraqi prosecution for acts committed when they supposedly had
immunity from Iraqi law, U.S. officials said Thursday.

A new U.S.-Iraq security agreement doesn't specifically prevent Iraqi
officials from bringing criminal charges retroactively in cases such as
the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians by contractors
protecting a State Department convoy, officials told security company
officials during meetings in Washington Thursday.

The news caught company officials by surprise.

are still trying to make sense of it," said Anne E. Tyrrell, a
spokeswoman for Blackwater Inc., whose security guards have been
involved in some of the most controversial incidents in Iraq, including
the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting at al Nisoor Square in Baghdad.

order signed in 2003 by L. Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition
Provisional Authority that governed Iraq, granted private security
guards immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. In the ensuing years,
private security contractors became critical to U.S. operations in
Iraq, guarding State Department convoys and undertaking other critical
military missions.

Contractors were often involved in
controversial incidents, including the killing of a bodyguard to Iraqi
Vice President Adil Abdel Mahdi.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki insisted that they be accountable to Iraqi law under the new security deal.

the question of whether Iraqis could use the agreement to prosecute
contractors for previous incidents wasn't addressed in the new
agreement. When security company officials asked Thursday, "We told
them that's a question we don't know the answer to," said a State
Department official, who spoke to reporters about the meetings under
the condition of anonymity.

A Defense Department official who
also participated in the briefing under the condition of anonymity
added that many contractors are taking a "wait-and-see attitude."

State Department official said he couldn't comment on whether the
matter had been raised in discussions with the Iraqis, but said the
U.S. will bring the contractors' concerns to them.

He also said
U.S. officials didn't know how the agreement would affect the ability
of American civilian officials to move around Iraq. State Department
employees currently are protected almost exclusively by private
security guards as they travel away from the U.S. Embassy. However, the
agreement addresses only security contractors working with U.S.
military forces.

We are in "diplomatic engagement with the Iraqis" on the matter, the State Department official said.

failure of the agreement to clarify issues about security contractors
comes as some military officials have questioned whether the agreement
doesn't give Iraq more control of U.S. military activities than U.S.
officials had contemplated when they began negotiating the agreement
last spring.

U.S. officials have told McClatchy that the Bush
administration was eager to complete the deal before it leaves office
in January and acquiesced to many Iraqi demands, including deleting
sections that would have allowed the Americans to delay their departure
if security conditions deteriorated. Currently, the agreement requires
all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

The U.S.
hasn't released an English-language version of the agreement, but the
Arabic version distributed by the Iraqis calls the accord a "withdrawal

As part of the accord, which U.S. and Iraqi officials
signed in Baghdad on Monday, effective Jan. 1, the U.S. cannot conduct
missions without approval from the Iraqi government. Iraq also will
assume control of the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and of the
nation's airspace on Jan. 1.

Representatives of 172 contracting
companies were invited to Thursday's briefings on the agreement. The
companies provide a wide array of services, such as security and
laundry, and their 173,000 employees outnumber the 150,000 U.S.
military personnel now in Iraq.

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