Blackwater's Iraq licence is revoked

The Iraqi government has decided not to renew the operating licence of US security contractor Blackwater Worldwide because of a 2007 shooting incident. Iraq's voters, set to go to the polls for the first time since 2005, are likely to approve.


AFP - Iraq will not renew the operating licence of US security firm Blackwater Worldwide because of a 2007 incident involving its guards in which civilians were killed, the interior ministry said on Thursday.

The notice, which comes as Iraqis are set to go to the polls for the first time since 2005, is likely to win favour among voters in a nation still angry over the deadly incident.

"The contract is finished and will be not be renewed by order of the minister of the interior," interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf told AFP, without giving a specific date.

Blackwater, a major US State Department contractor in Iraq, is being expelled over the deaths of the Iraqi civilians at a busy Baghdad intersection on September 16, 2007, Khalaf said.

"It is because of the shooting incident in 2007," he said.

An Iraqi investigation found that 17 civilians were killed and 20 injured in the incident, in which Blackwater guards opened fire with automatic weapons while escorting an American diplomatic convoy through Baghdad.

The firm and its founder Erik Prince maintain its guards were acting in self-defence.

Five former Blackwater guards have gone on trial in Washington over the incident. They have pleaded not guilty to killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others by gunfire and grenades.

Their trial is expected to begin on January 29, 2010.

Critics have repeatedly accused Blackwater of having a cowboy mentality and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach when carrying out security duties in Iraq.

Headquartered in North Carolina, Blackwater is one of the biggest security firms working in war-torn Iraq with about 1,000 staff, and since the 2003 invasion has been employed to protect US government personnel.

The company was not immediately available for comment on the development,   which comes ahead of Saturday's provincial polls in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has thrown his support behind the State of Law Coalition list.

A US embassy official in Baghdad confirmed that they had received the official notification but could not say what action they would take to replace Blackwater guards.

"We have been informed that Blackwater's private security company operating licence will not be granted," the official said.

"We don't have specifics about dates. We are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision."

After the incident in Baghdad's Nisur square, the Iraqi government pressed the State Department to withdraw Blackwater from the country, but the security firm's contract was renewed in 2008.

Foreign security teams in Iraq have long operated in a legal grey area, but under a military accord signed with Washington in November, Iraq obtained a key concession to lift the immunity to prosecution previously extended to US security contractors.

Blackwater first came under the public spotlight on March 31, 2004, when four of their employees were killed by an angry mob in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

The crowd mutilated their bodies and hung them from a bridge and was one of the first public indicators that an anti-US insurgency was gaining momentum.

The shocking images were broadcast worldwide and helped trigger a month-long US assault on Fallujah, a Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold, that left 36 US soldiers, 200 insurgents and 600 Iraqi civilians dead.

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