Iraq ministry eyes power to arrest foreign guards

A34509345.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s Interior Ministry will have the power to arrest foreign guards involved in shooting incidents if parliament approves a bill ending foreign security firms’ immunity from prosecution, the minister said on Monday.

Jawad al-Bolani also said he believed Iraq would soon need fewer foreign security contractors given that violence had dropped sharply in recent months.

Cabinet approved the draft law at the end of October in the wake of a September 16 shooting involving U.S. security firm Blackwater in which 17 Iraqis were killed. Blackwater said its guards acted lawfully, but the shooting enraged the Iraqi government.

The bill on foreign security guards has yet to be debated in parliament but it should pass easily. Iraqi officials have previously made clear it would make foreign guards liable under Iraqi law, but they have not been specific about carrying out arrests.

Asked if Interior Ministry forces could arrest foreign security contractors involved in shootings, Bolani said: “Yes, when the law is passed”.

This could spark tense scenes on Baghdad’s streets if foreign security convoys are involved in a shooting and then confronted by Iraqi security forces.

There have been at least three shootings involving foreign-based security firms since the Blackwater incident.

“We will not let these companies carry out actions that they had previously carried out,” Bolani said.

The bill to be debated by parliament intends to cancel Order 17, a decree issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 shortly before it handed control to an interim Iraqi government. The old measure prevents foreign contractors from being prosecuted in local courts.

Iraq says there are more than 180 mainly U.S. and European security companies in Iraq, with estimates of the number of private contractors ranging from 25,000 to 48,000.

Many Iraqis see foreign security guards as little more than private armies who travel in heavily armed convoys that bulldoze their way through traffic, threatening to open fire on motorists who venture too close.

“In the future I expect the need for such companies will be reduced as the security situation improves further,” Bolani said, adding that foreign security firms were cooperating more than in the past.

He also said that after 2008, Iraqi security forces would no longer need foreign contractors to help guard government institutions and buildings.

Private security contractors have expressed concern at the prospect of losing immunity, saying it would expose them to the vagaries of the Iraqi judicial system.

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