BAGHDAD (AFP) — The UN called Thursday for rogue security guards in Iraq to be prosecuted for possible war crimes as Blackwater was handed a lawsuit in the US on behalf of victims of a deadly Baghdad shootout.
The legal position of private contractors, especially protective security details often used by foreign diplomats, is a hot-button issue in Iraq after two high-profile shooting incidents in the capital within a month.
"If security contractors are subject to international human rights law there are consequences that follow from breaches of that law," UN human rights officer Ivana Vaco told a press conference in the Iraqi capital
"There must be investigations whether crimes against humanity or war crimes have been committed," she said.
A US rights group later announced it was filing a lawsuit against private security contractor Blackwater on behalf of a survivor and the families of three victims of a deadly shootout.
The suit in a Washington federal court accuses Blackwater of murder and war crimes and seeks unspecified damages, the Centre for Constitutional Rights said.
On September 16, personnel from American firm Blackwater opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square while escorting a US State Department convoy, killing at least 10 people.
Blackwater maintains its men were legitimately responding to an ambush, but the Iraqi government has said it intends to punish the company after its investigations found that 17 innocent civilians were gunned down "deliberately".
Before the dust had time to settle the row deepened on Tuesday when a woman taxi driver mistakenly got too close to a security convoy in Karrada district and came under immediate gunfire by guards from another company.
The taxi driver and her female passenger died of shots to the head, while a second woman passenger and a child were also wounded.
The car was left riddled with bullets and witnesses described barrages of gunfire before the convoy of Dubai-based Unity Resources Group (URG), which says its staff feared a suicide attack, sped off.
Since the Blackwater incident, the Iraqi government has drafted a law that would regulate the activities of private security contractors, but the United Nations said the onus was also on foreign governments to act.
"We would like the US government and other governments that have contractors in Iraq... to apply rules of engagement on them and to prosecute them in their own countries," UN spokesman Said Arikat told the press conference in Baghdad.
"We call on governments (who have contractors in Iraq) to apply the rule of law. They don't want rogue elements running amok doing things, feeling they are above the law," said Arikat.
Commenting on the incident, URG said in a fresh statement issued late Wednesday that its convoy used a series of signals after being "approached at speed by a white car."
"The vehicle did not heed these warnings and failed to halt. Fearing a suicide attack, only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle."
URG employees told AFP Thursday that they always followed strict protocols but that the situation in Iraq was extremely difficult because the environment was so unstable.
Unlike other security operators, in particular Blackwater, "we work with Iraqis, who are generally drivers and machine-gun shooters," a Europe-based staffer said on condition of anonymity.
"In traffic, overtaking vehicles should stop on our arrival and allow us to pass. If they don't we can use several means to make them stop.
"Our vehicles are equipped with sirens and loudspeakers run by the Iraqi drivers, who clearly warn drivers not to get too close," he said.
They then throw plastic water bottles, flash strobe lights and fire flare guns, but if all else fails "we proceed to warning shots, first in the air, then in front or to the side of the vehicle, on the hood, and then at the driver as a last resort."
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