In a bid to assert sovereignty following criticism of its handling of the Blackwater USA incident that left 11 Iraq civilians dead, Iraqi officials announced on Tuesday that they were drafting a new law to control private security contractors. The shooting has become a flashpoint, raising questions about why the government has softened on the issue, shifting its stance from demanding that Blackwater leave the country to asserting that it will merely regulate it.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that Iraq's Interior Ministry has drafted new legislation that would make private security companies "subject to Iraqi law and to be monitored by the Iraqi government."
A spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry, Maj-Gen Abdul Kareem Khalaf, said the new guidelines would cover everything to do with the operations of private security contractors.
"The companies will come under the grip of Iraqi law, will be monitored by the interior ministry and will work under its guidelines," he said.
"They will be strictly punished for any [violations] on the street."
The circumstances of the shooting are under investigation. Though many allege that Blackwater fired on the civilians without justification, the private security company claims that its guards reacted lawfully to an attack on a US diplomatic convoy. The incident, however, has raised concerns in Iraq about the immunity enjoyed by the tens of thousands of private US security contractors who operate there. The draft law is being considered by the consultative State Shura Council before moving to parliament for debate, the BBC added.
The announcement came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and US President George Bush met during a gathering of the UN General Assembly. The two were supposed to discuss "broad issues related to the war, but were forced to confront the latest irritant in their relationship," reports the Los Angeles Times.
During a 75-minute meeting Tuesday in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Bush and Maliki talked gingerly around the sensitive question of the role of private security companies in Iraq, according to a description by U.S. officials. A spokesman for Maliki, confirming the conversation, said the Iraqi leader cautioned against U.S. violations of Iraqi sovereignty.
"The forces operating in Iraq, including the security companies, should respect the sovereignty of Iraq," Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said by telephone in New York. "This is an issue which must be addressed in order to make the long-term relations between the U.S. and Iraq workable."
U.S. officials said the exchange was neither lengthy nor confrontational. Instead, there was "a general discussion of the importance of recognition of Iraqi sovereignty," said Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor.
However, Mr. Maliki's spokesman Mr. Dabbagh, said Tuesday that the cabinet will not approve any laws regarding private security companies until the US inquiry into the incident is completed.
The Financial Times reports that other issues on the agenda for Bush's meeting with Maliki, including a new oil law and changes to the constitution, were firmly on the back burner.
Officials said Mr Maliki had raised the issue of Iraq's "sovereignty" with Mr Bush – a reference to the operations of groups such as Blackwater. After the meeting between the US and Iraqi leaders, Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's national security adviser, said the issues of Iraqi sovereignty and Blackwater were discussed later by Mr Maliki and Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state.
Maliki's new emphasis on Iraqi sovereignty appears to be in response to criticism that his government backed down under US pressure. The Iraqi government made a "U-turn" earlier, backing down from earlier threats to eject Blackwater from the country, reported Al Jazeera.
The killings have outraged many Iraqis, who resent the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them as mercenary forces that abuse Iraqis in their own country. But Blackwater personnel are already back on the streets of Baghdad.
The US embassy resumed sending convoys out with Blackwater guards on Friday - just a few days after the Iraqi government ordered the company's operations frozen.
Press TV, an Iran-based broadcast network, reports that the recent efforts to a legal framework to control private security firms "contrasted sharply with strident calls last week for Washington to immediately replace Blackwater."
The Wall Street Journal also suggested that the central government in Iraq, "unpopular on the streets and worried about being marginalized, appears to be using the Blackwater crisis to counter US criticism that it is ineffective and to show ordinary Iraqis that it can stand up to Washington."
Commenting on Maliki's remarks, The News, a Pakistani daily, described Iraq as a "supine country."
Blackwater's infringement of Iraqi sovereignty have ranged from its helicopters repeatedly buzzing the compound of the Defence Ministry to the shooting of a body guard of one of the vice presidents of Iraq.
What is cause for equal concern for Iraq as far as its sovereignty is concerned are the kidnappings of visiting Iranians by US troops since the end of last year.
They were all government invitees. "The government of Iraq is an elected one and sovereign," Mr al-Maliki reminded the Americans. "When it gives a visa, it is responsible for the visa," he said in reference to last Thursday's arrest of an Iranian official in the town of Sulaimaniyah near the Iranian border, in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The arrest of the Iranian "who holds an Iraqi visa (is) unacceptable," Mr al-Maliki added.
US military officials are also concerned about the repercussions of the shooting incident, reports The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).
In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater, which operates under the department's authority, said a U.S. government official with knowledge of the discussions. "The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they've built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event," the official said.