by Joshua Partlow and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
BAGHDAD, Sept. 17 -- The Iraqi government on Monday said it had revoked the license of Blackwater USA, an American security company involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed at least nine people, raising questions over which nation should regulate tens of thousands of civilian hired guns operating in Iraq.
The Iraqi government's announcement was its most public assertion to date of its right to take action against foreign security companies when a suspected crime has been committed.
Several violent episodes involving Blackwater have infuriated Iraqi officials. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the decision meant Blackwater "cannot work in Iraq any longer."
"Blackwater has made many mistakes resulting in other deaths, but this is the last and the biggest mistake. This is unjustified," Khalaf said. "Security contracts do not allow them to shoot people randomly. They are here to protect personnel, not shoot people without reason."
Martin L. Strong, a Blackwater vice president, said that the company's guards had responded appropriately to an ambush and that the company had received "no official indication" of Iraqi action against Blackwater.
Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq. The company has a high profile because it guards U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and other diplomats in the country. The company's black SUVs and agile, armed "Little Bird" helicopters escort diplomatic convoys throughout Baghdad.
Blackwater obtained a one-year operating license from the Interior Ministry in 2005, according to a scanned copy of the document provided by the company. After The Washington Post reported in June that the company was effectively operating outside of Iraqi law, Blackwater approached the Private Security Company Association of Iraq to request assistance to obtain a license, according to the trade group.
"We have a license renewal in process with the Ministry of Interior," Strong said.
The shooting started at noon on Sunday when a car bomb exploded near a State Department motorcade traveling through the western Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad near Nisoor Square, U.S. officials said. Following the explosion, Blackwater employees guarding the diplomats exchanged fire with armed attackers, Blackwater and U.S. officials said.
The subsequent battle killed at least nine people and wounded 14, Iraqi police and hospital workers said. Khalaf put the death toll at 11.