Blackwater faces war crimes inquiry after killings in Iraq

The American firm Blackwater USA has been served notice that it faces investigations for war crimes after 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed in a hail of bullets by its security guards in Baghdad.

The killings last month put the spotlight on the private security firms whose employees are immune from prosecution, unlike professional soldiers who are subject to courts martial. In the second such incident in less than a month, involving the Australian contractor Unity Resources Group this week, two Armenian Christian women were shot dead after their car approached a protected convoy. Their car was riddled with 40 bullets.

Ivana Vuco, the most senior UN human rights officer in Iraq, spoke yesterday about the shootings by private security guards, which have provoked outrage among Iraqis. "For us, it's a human rights issue," she said. "We will monitor the allegations of killings by security contractors and look into whether or not crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed."

An Iraqi who was wounded in the 16 September shooting, and the relatives of three people killed in the attack, filed a court case in Washington yesterday accusing Blackwater of violating American law by committing "extrajudicial killings and war crimes."

Iraq says there are more than 180 mainly US and European security companies in the country, with estimates of the number of American contractors running at 100,000. Many Iraqis see the firms as little more than trigger-happy private armies, and the latest incidents have strained relations between Iraq and the US, which has ordered a full security review.

Iraqi authorities have accused Blackwater of the "deliberate murder" of Iraqi civilians in the shooting in a crowded city square, and are demanding millions of dollars in compensation and the removal of the company from the country within six months. The security firm says its guards returned fire at threatening targets and responded lawfully to a threat against a convoy it was guarding.

Ms Vuco said human rights laws applied equally to contractors and other parties in a conflict. "We will be stressing that in our communications with US authorities. This includes the responsibility to investigate, supervise and prosecute those accused of wrongdoing," she said at the launch in Baghdad of the latest UN human rights report, covering the period from April to June. It described the human rights situation in Iraq as "very grim".

Said Arikat, the UN mission spokesman, urged the Bush administration to hold accountable those involved in indiscriminate shooting; "to apply the rules of engagement and prosecute them". He added: "There cannot be rogue elements that are above the law. Definitely, we will be driving that point home time and again."

In the most recent shooting, on Tuesday, a woman taxi driver, Marany Awanees, and her front-seat passenger were killed. Unity Resources Group said its guards feared a suicide attack and fired only after issuing several warnings. The guards were protecting financial and policy experts working under contract for the US Agency for International Development.

Private security firms benefit from immunity under a 2004 law promulgated by the Coalition Provisional Authority.