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Private security in Iraq: whose rules?

A major gunfight has sparked rage and debate over Blackwater's role.

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– He was driving towards Baghdad's Al-Nesowr Circle when he saw the US convoy pass by – two Humvees and five Chevrolet Suburbans.

Then, says the Iraqi, he heard a loud explosion further down the street in the direction the convoy was headed. Gunfire erupted. It didn't initially seem to come from the Americans.

The witness and other nearby Iraqis fled their cars and took cover behind cement barriers. They watched as two small helicopters – Blackwater USA's signature "little birds"– swarmed the area and began shooting at the street.

This Sept. 16 Baghdad firefight, described to a Monitor reporter by an eyewitness, has infuriated the Iraqi government and sparked a debate in Washington about the prevalence and privileges of private security companies in Iraq.

An Iraqi Ministry of Defense report says that 20 Iraqis were killed in the incident, including a mother and child. US officials say they are conducting their own investigation.

"It's a tragic incident, but we don't know what we don't know at this point," says one American officer with an interest in the security situation. "I see a commitment to get to the bottom of what happened and take action based on the findings. I do understand how Iraqis could be angered by what they've heard thus far."

In a sign of how serious the situation has become, the US Embassy in Baghdad suspended diplomatic travel outside the protected Green Zone on Tuesday. Blackwater USA, based in Moyock, N.C., is one of three firms employed by the State Department to provide protection for US missions in Iraq. The others are Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, both based in Washington's Virginia suburbs.

In the case of the latest incident, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said in a statement Monday that the company's contractors "acted lawfully and appropriately.... Blackwater regrets any loss of life but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life."

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