Iraqi investigators have a videotape that shows Blackwater USA guards opened fire against civilians without provocation in a shooting last week that left 11 people dead, a senior Iraqi official said Saturday.
He said the case was referred to the Iraqi judiciary.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Iraqi authorities had completed an investigation into the Sept. 16 shooting in Nisoor Square in western Baghdad and concluded that Blackwater guards were responsible for the deaths.
He told the Associated Press that the conclusion was based on witness statements as well as videotape shot by cameras at the nearby headquarters of the national police command. He said eight people were killed at the scene and three of the 15 wounded died in hospitals.
Blackwater, which provides most of the security for U.S. diplomats and civilian officials in Iraq, has insisted that its guards came under fire from armed insurgents and shot back only to defend themselves.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Saturday that she knew nothing about the videotape and was contractually prohibited from discussing details of the shooting.
Khalaf also said the ministry was looking into six other fatal shootings involving the company in which 10 Iraqis were killed and 15 wounded. Among the shootings was an incident Feb. 7 outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad that killed three building guards.
"These six cases will support the case against Blackwater, because they show that it has a criminal record," Khalaf said.
No charges yet
Khalaf said the report was "sent to the judiciary" although he would not specify whether that amounted to filing of criminal charges. Under Iraqi law, an investigating judge reviews criminal complaints and decides whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied Saturday that authorities had decided to file charges against the Blackwater guards.
"The necessary measures will be taken that will preserve the honour of the Iraqi people," he said in New York, where Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived Friday foraUN General Assembly session. "We have ongoing high-level meetings with the U.S. side about this issue."
Al-Maliki is expected to raise the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush during a meeting Monday in New York.
Law could block prosecution
It is doubtful that foreign security contractors could be prosecuted under Iraqi law. A directive issued by U.S. occupation authorities in 2004 granted contractors, U.S. troops and many other foreign officials immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
Security contractors are also not subject to U.S. military law under which U.S. troops face prosecution for killing or abusing Iraqis.
Iraqi officials have said in the wake of the Nisoor Square shooting that they will press for amendments to the 2004 directive.
A senior aide to al-Maliki said Friday that three of the Blackwater guards were Iraqis and could be subject to prosecution. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Shortly after the Sept. 16 shooting, U.S. officials said they "understood" that there was videotape, but refused to give more details. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to the media.
Following the Nisoor Square shooting, the Interior Ministry barred Blackwater from operating in Iraq but rolled back after the U.S. agreed to a joint investigation. The company resumed guarding a reduced number of U.S. convoys on Friday.
The al-Maliki aide said Friday that the Iraqis were pushing for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable."
Hadi al-Amri, a prominent Shia lawmaker and al-Maliki ally, also said an admission of wrongdoing, an apology and compensation offered a way out of the dilemma.
"They are always frightened and that's why they shoot at civilians," al-Amri said. "If Blackwater gets to stay in Iraq, it will have to give guarantees about its conduct."
Allegations against Blackwater have clouded relations between Iraq and the Americans at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to contain calls in Congress for sharp reductions in the 160,000-strong U.S. military force.
Release Iranian,president says
Adding to those strains, President Jalal Talabani demanded the immediate release of an Iranian official detained Thursday by U.S. forces in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.
The U.S. military said the unidentified Iranian was a member of the Quds force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards accused of arming and training Shia militias in Iraq.
A statement issued Saturday by Talabani's office said the arrest was carried out without the prior knowledge or the co-operation of the Kurdish regional government.
"This amounts to an insult and a violation of its rights and authority," said the statement, quoting a letter Talabani sent to Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Talabani, a Kurd, is one of Washington's most reliable partners in Iraq.
Talabani said Iran had threatened to close the border with the Kurdish region if the official were not freed. That would bea serious blow to the economy in the president's political stronghold.
"I want to express to you our dismay over the arrest by American forces of this official civilian Iranian guest," Talabani wrote to Petraeus and Crocker.