Security Guards Feared Suicide Attack

An Iraqi woman looks inside a blood stained car of two women, allegedly shot dead by private security guards in central Baghdad, Oct. 9, 2007.
Security firm Unity Resources Group confirmed Wednesday that its guards were involved in shootings that left two Iraqi women dead, saying they feared a suicide attack when they opened fire on the car at an intersection in central Baghdad.

Weeping mourners, meanwhile, demanded justice at a funeral for Marou Awanis and Geneva Jalal, the two Armenian Christian women who died Tuesday in the second shooting of civilians involving a security firm linked to U.S. government-financed work in Iraq in less than a month.

Unity, which provides protection for USAID contractor RTI International, said the security team was "approached at speed by a white car" and used "graduated and escalated" warnings, including signs, strobe lights, hand signals and a flare to try to get it to stop.

"The vehicle did not heed these warnings and failed to halt," the company's chief operating officer Michael Priddin said in a statement. "Fearing a suicide attack, only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle."

Priddin said the area where the shootings occurred in the central Baghdad district of Karradah had been subjected to suicide car bombings in recent weeks and the guards were on alert.

It also confirmed that two people had been killed in the shootings. "We deeply regret the loss of these lives," the statement said, adding that the company was cooperating with Iraqi authorities in the investigation into the incident.

Relatives and friends of the victims as well as the Iraqi government claimed the use of force against the car was excessive and said those responsible should be held accountable.

"What is the use of the word 'sorry?"' Nora Jalal, Awanis' daughter and a student at Baghdad's Technology University, cried.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said an initial site investigation showed the guards were wrong to use their weapons.

"The use of force in that incident was unjustifiable," he said. "We cannot say that the guards shot at random, but rather we would say that they used force in a situation that they should not have done this. The preliminary investigation has shown that there was no threat to the convoy."

Al-Dabbagh said the families would be invited to file a lawsuit against the company, but he did not elaborate.

The shootings occurred as outrage was still fresh over the killings of 17 Iraqi civilians allegedly at the hands of Blackwater USA as it was protecting American specialists working under USAID contracts on development projects in Iraq. The North Carolina-based company has said its guards were responding to an attack by armed insurgents.

An Iraqi investigation of the Blackwater shooting on Sept. 16 was ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and called for the company to pay $8 million in compensation to the families of each of the 17 victims. The commission also said Blackwater guards had killed 21 other Iraqis since it began protecting American diplomats.

The Rev. Kivork Arshlian urged the government to punish those responsible despite the immunity that has generally been enjoyed by foreign security contractors in Iraq.

"This is a crime against humanity in general and against Iraqis in particular. Many other people were killed in a similar way," he said. "We call upon the government to put an end to these killings."

"This security company should leave the country. Those who committed this crime should be punished because they claimed the lives of two people," he added. "We do not want a trial in Australia, which we would know nothing about."

Arshlian celebrated the funeral Mass, which was held at the Virgin Mary Church. Awanis' three daughters cried and other female relatives wailed over the caskets, adorned only with a golden cross.

In other developments:

  • At least 27 people were killed or found dead across Iraq Wednesday in sectarian violence, police, morgue officials and witnesses reported.
  • Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected positions of Kurdish rebels near Iraq on Wednesday, a possible prelude to a cross-border operation that would likely raise tensions with Washington.
  • A U.S. soldier died Wednesday of a non-combat related cause in southern Baghdad, the military said. The death of the soldier is being investigated, the military said. The soldier's name was withheld pending notification of relatives. The deaths raised to at least 3,819 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an AP count.
  • The U.S. released 60 Iraqi prisoners, including 10 youths, Wednesday. As a gesture of good will, the U.S. military has pledged to release more than 50 detainees a day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends later this week.