Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iraq says 2 American guards detained

Iraqi soldiers detained two American security guards along with several other foreigners traveling in a private security convoy after they opened fire Monday in Baghdad, wounding one woman, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

U.S. military and embassy officials had no immediate information about the report, which follows a series of recent shootings in which foreign security guards have allegedly killed Iraqis. Last month, the Iraqi Cabinet sent parliament a bill to lift immunity for foreign private security companies that has been in effect since the U.S. occupation began in 2003.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the convoy was driving on the wrong side of the road in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah when the shooting took place about midday.

Those arrested included two American guards, along with 21 people from Sri Lanka, nine from Nepal and 10 Iraqis, the Baghdad military spokesman said.

"We have given orders to our security forces to immediately intervene in case they see any violations by security companies. The members of this security company wounded an innocent woman and they tried to escape the scene, but Iraq forces arrested them," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.



The role of private security guards has become particularly controversial following a Sept. 16 shooting in which Blackwater Worldwide guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

The FBI is continuing its investigation into the shootings, although the Iraqi government has concluded that the security guards were unprovoked when the began shooting at an intersection at Nisoor Square in western Baghdad. The North Carolina-based company, the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has said its security convoy was under attack before it opened fire.

The Iraqi Cabinet's initiative to lift immunity for private security companies would not be retroactive and therefore not affect the Blackwater employees who were involved in the Sept. 16 shooting. Parliament has yet to act on the measure.

A top U.S. commander, meanwhile, said violence in northern Iraq has declined at a slower rate than it has in other regions, as al-Qaida and other militants move there to avoid coalition operations elsewhere.

As a result, the north is now more violent than other regions. Most of the 27 U.S. deaths this month were north of Baghdad.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands U.S. troops in the region, said al-Qaida cells still operate in all the key cities in the north.

"What you're seeing is the enemy shifting," he told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Tikrit. "The attacks are still much higher than I would like here in the north but they are continuing to decrease in numbers and scale of attacks."

He said 900 roadside bombs were placed in his region last month, compared with 1,830 in June.

Sporadic violence nationwide left at least 22 people were killed or found dead Monday.

The deadliest attack occurred near the southern city of Basra when a rocket slammed into a house, killing five children and their mother, police said. Police said they believe the rocket was targeting the nearby airport, which is the headquarters of the British military in the area, but fell short.

British-led forces plan to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqis in the predominantly Shiite province in mid-December, saying the levels of violence have dropped despite fears of escalating rivalries between Shiite militia fighters battling for power.

In another mostly Shiite province, Qadisiyah, U.S. and Iraqi troops detained about 70 suspected extremists and seized weapons caches, Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimy said.

In other developments:

- Iraq's chief prosecutor said a trial would begin "within days" for two former Health Ministry officials accused of letting death squads use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings and siphoning millions of dollars to the Mahdi Army, a case that will test the government's commitment to crack down on Shiite militias.

- The head of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, returned home from Iran after undergoing another round of chemotherapy there for lung cancer.

- U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, said several Iranians who have been detained by U.S. forces in Iraq were being allowed family visits starting Monday.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.


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