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Rice, Maliki Meet Amid Blackwater Flap

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Saturday with Iraq's prime minister in their first face-to-face talks since a Baghdad shootout involving guards from a U.S. company protecting American diplomats.

Rice and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were among numerous top diplomats and officials from Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, which the United States accuses of destabilizing Iraq, gathering at the United Nations with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to discuss Iraq's future.

Neither spoke to reporters as they entered the room for the meeting, which came as a senior Iraqi official in Baghdad said Iraqi investigators have a videotape that shows employees of Blackwater USA opening fire against civilians without provocation on Sept. 16.

At the same time, Iraq's Interior Ministry said it had expanded its investigation of the shooting to include six other incidents involving Blackwater guards over the past seven months.

The developments added to rising U.S.-Iraqi tensions, which shot up following last Sunday's shooting that killed at least 11 Iraqis, including civilians.

Despite that, al-Maliki said before the session that he believed security was improving in Iraq and urged the United Nations to boost its presence in his country.

"The security situation ... has begun to develop tremendously, and the Baghdad of today is different from the Baghdad of yesterday," he said after a solo meeting with Ban.

The Rice-al-Maliki talks here, held as part of a wider meeting on Iraqi economic and political goals, are the highest-level encounter between the governments since the incident and since Rice on Friday announced a full review of State Department security in Iraq.

They precede a meeting between al-Maliki and President George W. Bush next week on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly.

The security review that Rice announced will examine the rules of engagement followed by security contractors as well as rules and regulations that govern their operations. That includes the jurisdiction in which contractors should be covered and the immunity from prosecution by Iraqi and U.S. military courts that they now enjoy.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is also beginning to look at widely conflicting accounts of last weekend's incident; the first session was planned for Sunday.

American witnesses have said the security guards were responding to an attack. Many Iraqi witnesses have told investigators the shooting was unprovoked. The prime minister has called the incident a "crime" and his government has suggested that the U.S. no longer use Blackwater for security.

But the State Department relies heavily on private contractors to protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian U.S. government personnel in Iraq because it lacks the means to do so itself.

Blackwater has said its guards, protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy, were returning fire from insurgents and acted appropriately.

Rice spoke to al-Maliki by telephone Monday to express regret for the deaths. At that time, she asked that he hold off from any action against Blackwater until all the facts were known.

Iraqi officials, who initially said they would ban the company, have shown no sign of easing their criticism. The killings have outraged many Iraqis, who long have resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.

Iraq's Interior Ministry now is looking at other incidents involving Blackwater employees.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the Moyock, North Carolina-based company has been implicated in six other incidents over the past seven months, including a Feb. 7 shooting outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad in which three building guards were fatally shot.

Blackwater USA spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell had no comment when reached by telephone Saturday morning.

In Other Developments:

  • Federal prosecutors are investigating whether employees of Blackwater USA illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq that might have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terror organization, U.S. officials say.
  • Authorities in Anbar province announced the arrests of 25 people linked to the assassination of the leader of the U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni Arab tribesmen in the western Anbar province against al Qaeda in Iraq. The detainees included the head of the security detail that was supposed to protect Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, killed in a bombing Sept. 13 at his compound near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Jubeir Rashid, an Iraqi police officer in Anbar. Rashid said Abu Risha's security chief, Capt. Karim al-Barghothi, confessed and said al Qaeda in Iraq had offered him $1.5 million for the slaying, but he was arrested before he could collect the money.
  • Gunmen ambushed an Iraqi police checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding five others, according to authorities. A civilian also was killed in Khalis, a Shiite enclave near Baqouba in the volatile Diyala province, when gunmen opened fire on his car.
  • U.S. troops killed seven suspected insurgents and weapons and military-style assault vests were found at the site in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad. The troops also detained 12 suspected insurgents, including a militant believed to have been responsible for the movement of senior al Qaeda in Iraqi leaders and to have extensive knowledge of their whereabouts, the military said.
  • An al Qaeda umbrella group in Iraq posted a video recording on showing the killing of five kidnapped Iraqi army officers. The footage, posted by the Islamic State of Iraq, shows a masked gunman shooting the blindfolded officers in the back of the head with a pistol. The officers' hands are bound behind their backs during the shooting.
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