US security firms warned of Iraq risks months ago

Private security chiefs warned that growing tensions between Iraqis and American armed bodyguards could descend into a disastrous "shoot-out" four months before an American firm was suspended this week following a fierce gun battle that left 11 locals dead.

A confidential memo sent to more than 200 private security companies (PSCs) in Iraq last May warned of the "serious risk" of armed exchanges between foreign guards and local security forces.

Lawrence Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq (PSCAI), responded to the kidnapping of four British bodyguards by calling for a new standard operating procedure to offer private guards better protection.

The official concern that tense encounters could easily escalate into lethal exchanges emerged amid a row over the conduct of the American PSC Blackwater, after 11 Iraqis were killed when its guards opened fire in a Baghdad square last Sunday.

Blackwater insisted its staff acted in self-defence, although this claim was disputed by Iraqi eyewitnesses. The company was ordered to suspend operations while a joint US-Iraqi inquiry was held, but it has now resumed in a limited way in the Iraqi capital.

In his memo, Mr Peter asked PSCs for help in developing new tactics after the kidnapping of four British guards. He said: "I am concerned that there is now a serious risk of a PSC detail opening fire on a police detail, should the situation not feel right. PSCs must also be mindful of the rule of law and appropriate response to legitimate authority."

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