WASHINGTON (AFP) — The red-faced US government on Tuesday pleaded for patience from Baghdad as a private US security firm's role in a deadly gun battle tested US claims that war-torn Iraq is a sovereign nation.
The White House, the Pentagon, and the US State Department were grappling with how to curb the damage from Sunday's clash in which Blackwater contractors apparently killed civilians, fueling anti-US sentiments in Iraq.
A top Iraqi judge has said Blackwater could face trial over the incident, in which some of its guards, who were escorting US embassy officials, opened fire in a Baghdad neighborhood, killing 10 and wounding 13.
But Blackwater denies any wrongdoing, and US legal experts said the contractors may be immune from prosecution under a measure conceived by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority not long after the March 2003 invasion.
And, US officials said, it was unclear whether -- or if -- any US nationals involved would be tried under US or Iraqi law over the incident, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has angrily branded a "criminal" act.
"That bit of it will come at the very end" of a probe into what happened, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said one day after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephone Maliki to ease his concerns.
"You would have to have a precise set of facts in order to be able to determine the various applicable legal authorities and whether or not ... there were any laws that were broken," said McCormack.
"We want to be as open and transparent and cooperative as we possibly can with the Iraqis. I think that this is going to be a process that unfolds over a period of time. I can't tell you how long," he said.
The State Department and Iraq's government were conducting parallel probes into the incident, but "look for those investigations to merge and to have a joint investigation pretty soon," a US official said on condition of anonymity.
McCormack declined to say whether Washington would make any US nationals available for questioning by Iraqi officials, declined to say how many Blackwater employees operate in Iraq, and said the convoy had been provoked.
"The basic fact is that there was an attack on the convoy," and escorts are trained to "respond with graduated use of force, proportionate to the kind of fire and attack that they're coming under," he said.
"We have not been informed that Blackwater's, quote, 'license,' has been lifted, suspended or terminated," McCormack said one day after Iraqi officials said their interior ministry had done so.
Iraq's government said it will review the operations of all security firms working in the war-ravaged country, and the Pentagon said it was taking a hard look into the US military's use of private security contractors in Iraq.
A spokesman for the US Central Command said 7,300 private security personnel were in Iraq under contract to the US Defense Department as of July 5. Overall, there were 137,000 people in Iraq on Defense Department contracts.
Those figures do not include private security personnel or others under contract to the State Department -- like the Blackwater contractors in the shooting -- or other US agencies.
The dispute came 17 months after US President George W. Bush was unable to answer a graduate student who asked what laws apply to the thousands of independent contractors working in Iraq.
Paul Williams, a former State Department lawyer who has advised Iraq's government, said that the contractors were immune from Iraqi prosecution but that Iraq could repeal that measure.
But Michael Newton, a professor of international law at Vanderbilt University, said that the contractors' country of origin -- it was not clear whether they were US nationals -- could waive that protection.
"The immunity is negotiated by and on behalf of the state, the occupying power. So the sending State could waive that immunity and allow Iraqi courts to prosecute," he said.
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