Iraq on Tuesday launched a review of all private security companies operating in the country, after Sunday’s fatal shoot-out involving Blackwater, a large US security contractor.

An Iraqi government spokesman accused Blackwater security guards of a “flagrant assault” against Iraqi citizens and confirmed Monday’s decision by the interior ministry to “halt” the company’s licence.

He said the Iraqi cabinet affirmed, ”the need to review the situation of foreign and local security companies working in Iraq, in accordance with Iraqi laws”.

The US state department said it had launched an investigation into Sunday’s incident, in which several Iraqis were killed by Blackwater security guards.

Sean McCormack, state department spokesman, promised an “objective” and “sober-minded” inquiry.

Blackwater said its employees “acted lawfully and appropriately” in response to an attack on a US government convoy they were guarding. The Iraqi government claims innocent civilians were among those killed.

The incident was the latest in a series of deadly clashes involving the thousands of private security contractors in Iraq, fuelling local resentment against their presence.

Critics have accused the companies of behaving like “private armies” out of reach of Iraqi law. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, on Tuesday called for the contracts of all foreign security firms to be annulled.

Mr McCormack said Blackwater was one of three companies that provided security services to US diplomats in Iraq and other war zones.

Security contractors were subject to state department rules of engagement, which allowed for a “defensive” and “proportionate” use of force when under attack, he added.

Mr McCormack said the state department had not been officially informed of the Iraqi decision to expel Blackwater. The company was still operating in Iraq on Tuesday and remained under contract with the US government, he added.

The White House said any loss of civilian life was “deeply regretted” but said it was important that US officials were given the protection they needed in Iraq.

A senior member of the House of Representatives promised to hold hearings to investigate the extent of US dependence on private security companies.

“The controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors,” said Henry Waxman, Democratic chairman of the House oversight committee.

The Iraqi government indicated that the ban on Blackwater may be only temporary. ”We are not intending to stop them and revoke their license indefinitely, but we do need them to respect the law and the regulation here in Iraq,” Ali al-Dabbagh,a government spokesman, told CNN.

Senior officials in the private security industry said it was not clear that Blackwater required a licence to operate in Iraq under its contract with the state department.

The legal position of private military contractors in Iraq has long been the subject of controversy, with an order from the former Coalition Provisional Authority, never rescinded, that grants them immunity from Iraqi law.

An initial report of Sunday’s incident from the US embassy said that the US convoy, which was protecting one individual, came under fire about 2km north-west of Baghdad’s green zone. It said an estimated eight to 10 people fired on the convoy from various positions, some of whom were dressed in Iraqi police uniforms. Blackwater said its heliciopters provided aerial support but never fired weapons, and Blackwater personnel returned only defensive fire towards ”armed enemies”.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters

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