- Blackwater - Iraq - Iraq war
AFP - US security firm Blackwater ended its operations in Iraq on Thursday, closing a controversial era for the company whose guards shot dead 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
"The task order for security protection operations held by Blackwater comes to an end today in Baghdad," American embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said, adding that Triple Canopy will replace it.
The US State Department on March 31 awarded Virginia-based Triple Canopy a contract reportedly worth nearly a billion dollars to take over protection of US government personnel in Iraq.
Linked agreements such as that for Presidential Airways, part of Blackwater that operates helicopter escorts throughout the country for secure air travel, will expire soon, Ziadeh added.
The State Department refused to renew annual contracts for Blackwater which renamed itself Xe after the Iraq government banned it in January over the killings in Baghdad's Nisur Square on September 16, 2007.
An Iraqi investigation found that 17 civilians died and 20 were wounded when Blackwater guards opened fire with automatic weapons while escorting an American diplomatic convoy through the square.
US prosecutors say 14 civilians were killed in the incident. Five former Blackwater guards pleaded not guilty at a federal court in Washington in January to manslaughter charges.
The shooting focused a spotlight on the shadowy and highly lucrative operations of private security operations. Blackwater personnel were reported to earn as much as 1,000 dollars a day each in Iraq.
A report in the New York Times on April 3, valued Triple Canopy's new contract at 977 million dollars. The paper also said that many of the company's guards were likely to be former Blackwater employees.
But Interior Ministry spokesman major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP Blackwater guards would be denied work in Iraq.
"There is no way that former Blackwater guards will be allowed to return to Iraq with a different company," he told AFP.
Triple Canopy was not available for comment on Thursday.
Foreign security teams in Iraq have long operated in a legal grey area, but under a military accord signed with Washington last November, Baghdad won a concession to lift the immunity to prosecution previously extended to US security contractors.
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Xe, defended her company's work.
"When the US Government initially asked for our help to assist with an immediate need to protect Americans in Iraq, we answered that call and performed well," she said in comments emailed to AFP.
"We are honored to have provided this service for five years and are proud of our success - no one under our protection has been killed or even seriously injured."
"We always knew that, at some point, that work would come to a close."
Blackwater first came under scrutiny on March 31, 2004, when four of its employees were killed by an angry mob in Fallujah, then a Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold.
The crowd mutilated their bodies and strung them from a bridge, shocking images that were broadcast worldwide and led to a month-long assault on Fallujah that left 36 US soldiers, 200 insurgents and 600 civilians dead.
Blackwater, headquartered in North Carolina, has been protecting US government personnel in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and has had around 1,000 staff in the violence-wracked country, making it among the largest security firms operating there.
In the wake of the scandal over civilian deaths in Iraq, its founder Erik Prince announced in March that he was stepping down as chief executive, but would stay on as chairman.